Thursday, August 26, 2010

Mystery Mint Chip Ice Cream

I do weird things with food when I'm bored... although, some would argue I do weird things with food all the time.  Just earlier today I (regrettably) found myself slathering almond butter on a spoonful of peanut butter chocolate ice cream.  It was 107 degrees outside, and the only edible thing in my freezer was a meager spoonful of ice cream, so I'm not sure why I felt the need to smother that final, cold, precious bite with sticky warm goo.  It must be my insatiable quest for adventure and experimentation!

The lack of ice cream in my freezer on a day when I so desperately needed ice cream inspired me to action- as did the article I had just read in this month's Bon Appetit about infusing cocktails with herbs.  Our garden is full of herbs!  I could infuse my ice cream with herbs!  Unfortunately, due to a laissez-faire gardening regime, our herb patch has grown into a monstrous thicket.  The labels marking the once-neat rows of herbs have long-since been engulfed by vines, fronds, and giant spider webs.  I managed to recognize the basil, rosemary, and curry plants by sight (and smell!), but I doubted anyone in my household would embrace savory ice cream, and never curried ice cream (except my bf who puts curry in everything! I don't want to encourage that haha).

However, I vaguely remembered my mom mentioning that she had planted some different types of mint in lieu of the usual peppermint.  Something about chocolate mint or pineapple mint...? Bingo!  What better treat on a hot day than a cool scoop of mint chip?

I traipsed through the herb jungle, dodging gigantic arachnids, ducking spiky stalks, and squinting through the leaves in search of labels, to no avail.  None of the plants remotely resembled any mint I'd ever seen.  I crushed a few stems between my fingers to see if I could detect a whiff of sharp, minty perfume, but the surrounding foliage failed to produce that familiar fresh scent.  One towering plant, however, did smell rather nice.  It wasn't too earthy, like rosemary, or too peppery, like basil, and it didn't overpower my nose like the curry.  I plucked a fuzzy leaf and inhaled... it had a mild, sweet scent... And did I detect a hint of mint?  Sure, why not? 
                  Mint? Poison Oak? Let's eat it and find out!

I figured if the plant was in the herb patch, it probably wasn't toxic, whatever it was (I've since learned that at least one species of mint, the pennyroyal, IS toxic if ingested, but what dingbat would plant a toxic variety of mint in an edible garden?  Hm.... maybe the same type of dingbat who infuses ice cream with random leaves she discovers sprouting up between her tomato bushes...).  And so, mystery mint chip was born!  The curious herb had such a delicate aroma that I nixed bittersweet chips in favor of the milder flavor of white chocolate.  I wanted this bashful plant to have a leading role in my concoction! (although I wasn't above a drizzle of homemade dark chocolate sauce on my own finished scoop).

The resulting ice cream definitely had a robust minty kick, tempered by the buttery shards of white chocolate folded into the custard.  Based on a Google-image search of different mint varieties (and the fact that I haven't yet sickened and died), I think I may have used chocolate-mint after all.  Phew!

3 cups of fresh mint leaves, rinsed and packed (I used chocolate-mint, I think...)
1 c. whole milk
2 c. heavy cream
2/3 c. sugar
pinch of salt
6 egg yolks
two chocolate bars (I used two 3.5oz bars of Lindt white chocolate)

Put the chocolate bars in the fridge so they remain cold, unless you're lucky enough to have air conditioning.  In a medium saucepan, combine the mint, milk, and one cup of the cream.  Heat the mixture over medium heat until the cream is scalded (bubbles will begin to form at the edges of the pan).  Do not let the cream-mixture boil.  Remove the pan from heat, cover, and steep for 30 minutes.

Reheat the mixture until the cream is scalded again, remove from heat, cover, and steep an additional 15 minutes.  Meanwhile, whisk the six yolks together in a small bowl, and set aside.

Strain the mint out of the cream mixture, and return the cream to the saucepan.  Use a spatula or fork to press any remaining cream out of the mint and into the pan. 

Add the sugar, and stir over medium heat until the sugar has dissolved.  Remove from heat.  Using a ladle or big spoon, drizzle the hot cream mixture into the egg yolks, whisking the yolks constantly to prevent curdling.  Continue ladling cream into the yolks (tempering) until they are hot, but not cooked.  Return the yolky cream (pre-custard!) to the saucepan.  Stirring constantly, cook the custard over low heat until it thickens enough to coat the spatula.  Be very careful not to let the custard get to hot or disaster will befall you in the form of curdled custard.  As soon as it starts to thicken, take it off the heat!  You can always put it back if it's not thick enough.  The process will take between 5 and 10 minutes.

When you're custard has thickened, pour it through a sieve into a separate bowl, and stir in the remaining cup of heavy whipping cream.  Stick the whole shebang in the fridge until thoroughly chilled, about 2 hours (or if you're impatient and you have a big empty freezer, you can put it in the freezer to speed things up.  Stir it every five minutes or so until cold).

While the custard chills, use a big sharp knife to shave the chocolate bars.  The goal is to make chocolate shards that will melt in your mouth, instead of big chunks that will freeze into gravel and ruin the consistency of your hard earned treat.  Just slide the knife firmly against the edge of the chocolate bar, and little shavings should just pop off!

When the custard is completely cold, pour it into your ice cream maker and freeze according to the manufacturer's directions.  Add the chocolate in the last ten minutes of freeze-time. I do not recommend adding almond butter.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Chocolate Meringue Cake

This recipe gets its name from the crisp-chewy meringue (studded with toasted hazelnuts and pockets of gooey chocolate... mmm) that crowns the chocolate souffle cake beneath. 

When my mom requested that I make this recipe for her birthday, I was not thrilled about it.   Up to that point, my contact with meringue had been mostly limited to soggy pie topping and those stiff little cookies resembling pastel ping pong balls (and tasting no better).  In my book, meringue had a bad rap as the "light" alternative to my favorite accompaniment (luxurious mountains of sweetened whipped cream!).  Why top a delicious chocolate cake with a wispy pile of over sweetened egg-whites when you can just as easily serve it with a dollop of luscious whipped cream?

Despite my misgivings, I went along with the recipe, grumbling throughout the sticky process... but just one bite proved me wrong.  Though toothache sweet, the meringue oozed with chunks of dark chocolate and paired perfectly with the rich cake and earthy nuts. 

And so began my turbulent, love-hate relationship with meringue.  Sometimes, in my quest for the next ethereal meringue delicacy, I beat my whites into a froth only to have them collapse, wet and weeping.  Other times, my meringue whips up as soft and sweet as cotton candy, and I fall in love all over again.  Worst are the recipes resulting in those cratered wafers that shatter into shards and sugar-dust at the slightest provocation.  But this recipe is tried and true.  When I want that meringue magic, this is where I turn.   What fun to ladle those soft, shimmering layers onto my crackling cake!  How glamorous to dress my dessert in silken folds, laden with nuts and chocolate!  The voluptuous gown of meringue is quite extravagant and fanciful. 

If you want to impress your friends, show up to the party with this little lady in tow (the cake, not me! haha).  

10T. unsalted butter, plus a little extra for the pan
1c. hazelnuts
A sprinkle of flour for the pan
3/4c. light brown sugar
6 large eggs, separated
4 large egg whites
12oz. bittersweet chocolate chips, melted and cooled
4oz. bittersweet chocolate bar, roughly chopped
1T. vanilla
1T rum (optional)
pinch of salt
1T. cornstarch
1/4t. cream of tartar
1c. superfine sugar (regular granulated will do just fine though)

Preheat the oven to 350.  Butter a 9in springform pan, and sprinkle it with flour.  Tap out the excess flour.  Spread the hazelnuts in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet, and toast them in the oven until your kitchen smells wonderful, about 10 minutes.  Remove them from the oven and rub them vigorously in a dish towel to remove the skins (don't worry if some of the skin sticks around).  Allow the nuts to cool, then roughly chop them and combine them with the 4oz chopped chocolate bar.  Set aside.

To make the cake, cream the butter and brown sugar in a large bowl until pale and fluffy.  Add the 6 egg yolks one at a time, beating well after each addition.  Drizzle in the cooled, melted chocolate, the vanilla, and the rum, and beat until well-mixed.  Set the batter aside.

In a medium bowl, beat the pinch of salt with the 6 egg whites on high speed until soft peaks form (use a CLEAN whisk!  If you get even a drop of batter, or even water into your egg whites, they won't whip well).  This will take about 2 min.  Stir 1/3 of the egg whites into the chocolate batter, then gently fold the remaining beaten egg whites into the batter until just combined (don't over-mix!).  Pour the batter into the springform pan, and bake 25 minutes.

Meanwhile, prepare the meringue.  Beat the remaining 4 egg whites and the cream of tartar on high speed (again, clean beaters, clean bowl = important) until frothy.  With the mixer running, add the cup of sugar in a slow stream, and then continue beating until stiff peaks form, about 8 minutes.  Stir the cornstarch into the chocolate-hazelnut mixture, and then fold the chocolate and hazelnuts into the meringue. 

Remove the cake from the oven, and spread the meringue mixture over the top of the cake.  Pop it back in the oven and bake until the meringue is lightly browned, crisp, and crackling, 25-30 minutes. 

Let the cake stand at least 10 minutes before unmolding, and allow it to cool for 30 minutes before slicing and serving.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Tomato Tarte Tatin

"Add heavy whipping cream to that list."
"What for?"
"The tomato tart."
"Whipping cream and tomatoes?"
"It's for dessert."
"It's a dessert?"
"Yes, it's a dessert."
"So, it's sweet?"
"Yes, lots of sugar.  There's a caramel syrup."
"Caramel and tomatoes... I don't know about that.  What do you serve it with?"
"Whipped cream, of course!  It's a tart!"
"Aren't you making a side dish for the salmon?"
"No, it's a dessert."
"Well, I think that sounds weird."

And so went the conversation as I explained the tomato tarte tatin to my mom as she made her grocery list for our dinner.  I'm sure she secretly put chocolate ice cream on the list too, in case the tomato tart indeed tasted weird.  I've said it before and I'll say it again, oh ye of little faith!  When have my oddball creations failed you?  Did we throw away my Avocado Bread?  Was there a single crumb remaining of my Chocolate Chocolate Mayonnaise Cake? When eyebrows raised as I painted balloons with white chocolate, did I not deliver on my promise of delicious panna cotta Easter eggs?

Of course, if forced to choose between no dessert and weird dessert, my family will always choose weird dessert.  So with grudging approval, I embarked on my tomato tarte tatin.  Given that a tomato really is a fruit anyways, and the recipe appeared in Bon Appetit, I was pretty confident that the dessert would be edible, and probably delicious.  Bon Appetit surely wouldn't devote an entire full-color page to a dessert that tasted like Hunt's on puff pastry!  The photo was what caught my eye in the first place- it showcased dark red fruits nestled in glossy pools of their own caramelized juices, appearing to be exotic plums on a bed of golden pastry.  I was surprised and excited to discover they were not plums, but plum tomatoes!

For some reason, I am endlessly delighted by even the smallest of coincidences.  Perhaps because I'm convinced there is no underlying theme to the ebb and flow of life, I've developed the notion that a happy coincidence should be savored.  You never know what will happen next time!  Morbid and exciting at the same time I suppose...  Anyways, when I saw the recipe for tomato tarte tatin, my eyes lit up.  Our garden had recently sprouted a ridiculous thicket of tomato bushes.  What a coincidence!

One could certainly argue that it wasn't really much of a coincidence... after all, we did plant those tomatoes in June for the express purpose of cooking and eating... but those spindly little plants could have succumbed to blight, been eaten by the army of squirrels camped in our yard, died from our frequent forgetfulness with the watering, or generally failed to flower and flourish.  Bon Appetit could have focused on cucumbers!  Instead, bushels of fat tomatoes had taken over the entire vegetable patch, rudely intruding into the space reserved for zucchini and peppers and burying the basil under gigantic fuzzy fronds.  And Bon Appetit printed a recipe for tomato tarte tatin.  A happy coincidence, I say.

The avant garde tart wowed the crowd and the skeptics were skewered again.
It tasted similar to a plum tart, but with an interesting tomato flavor that would have been hard to place had no one been the wiser.  The recipe called for plum tomatoes, but my bounty included plum, cherry, and heirloom so I used all three.  Served hot, dripping with tangy tomato-caramel, and smothered with sugared whipped cream, this weird dessert was irresistible.

Ingredients for the Tarte Tatin
1 3/4 lbs plum tomatoes
3T. softened butter
3/4c. sugar
1t. vanilla
1 sheet of frozen puff pastry, thawed (I know, using frozen pastry is cheating, but making puff pastry is way too much effort and your puff pastry likely won't compare to the frozen kind, unless you're a professional pastry chef)

Whipped Cream Ingredients
3/4c. heavy whipping cream
1/2t. vanilla
2T granulated sugar

Bring a large pot of water to boil and prepare a large bowl of ice water.  Cut shallow cross-hatched slits in the bottom of each tomato, and drop them in the boiling water four at a time.  Leave the tomatoes in the boiling water until the skin begins to peel away from the slits, 15-30 seconds.  Use a slotted spoon to remove the tomatoes and plunge them immediately into the ice bath to stop the cooking.  Repeat with the remaining tomatoes, in batches of four.  Peel the tomatoes, discard the skins, and cut each in half crosswise.

Spread the softened butter over the bottom of a 9 inch cast iron skillet (or other ovenproof pan) and sprinkle the 3/4c. sugar over the butter.  Arrange the tomatoes, cut side up, over the sugar and butter.  Fill the skillet completely, nestling the tomatoes close together.
Place the skillet over medium heat and cook until the butter and sugar reduce to a thick amber syrup, about 25 minutes.  Watch the pan carefully and use a spatula to gently shift the tomatoes, and do not allow the tomatoes or the syrup to blacken.  While the tomatoes cook, preheat the oven to 425.

Remove the skillet from the heat, and drizzle the teaspoon of vanilla over the tomatoes.  Top with the pastry, and use a knife to tuck the edges of the pastry around the tomatoes.  Place the skillet in the oven and bake until the puff pastry rises and becomes a deep golden color, about 24 minutes.

Cool the tart in the skillet for ten minutes, then loosen the edges with a knife.  Place a large platter over the skillet, and using oven mitts so you don't sear your hands, hold the platter to the skillet and flip the whole thing over.  Carefully lift off the skillet, and arrange any tomatoes that have slipped out of place.  Let the tart cool slightly while you make the whipped cream.

For the whipped cream, beat the cream on high speed until soft peaks form.  Add the vanilla and sugar, and continue beating on low speed for a few more seconds, just to combine the sugar and vanilla with the cream.
Serve each bejeweled wedge of tart with a fat dollop of sugared cream.