May 27, 2010

The Daring Baker Challenge May2010: piece montée


The May 2010 Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Cat of Little Miss Cupcake. Cat challenged everyone to make a piece montée, or Croquembouche, based on recipes from Peter Kump’s Baking School in Manhattan and Nick Malgieri.

When I read this on the forum of the Daring Bakers I thought "Yuhuu! A Croquembouche! My second DB Challenge is going to be even more exciting than the first one". That's because this challenge gave me an excuse to make a dessert that I always wanted to make but for which I never really found the right occasion. The classic piece montée is a high pyramid/cone made of profiteroles (cream-filled puff pastries) sometimes dipped in chocolate, bound with caramel, and usually decorated with threads of caramel, sugared almonds, chocolate, flowers, or ribbons.  More than the Croquembouche itself, the excitement for me was to try to make the pate a choux myself, because it’s the basis of marvelous French desserts such as Eclaires, Profiteroles, and many others. I really, really, really wanted to succeed in the pate a choux making, more than in the assemblage of the Croquembouche. Maybe it was because this was the spirit with which I started this challenge that things went they way they went…

The weekend after the challenge was posted I was already in front of the stoves with all the ingredients for the pate a choux, ready to start. The making of the Croquembouche consists of three steps. The first one is making the pate a choux. Here is the recipe that Cat provided us (one of the requirements of the challenge was to strictly follow this recipe):
Pate a Choux
(Yield: About 28)
¾ cup (175 ml.) water
6 tbsp. (85 g.) unsalted butter
¼ tsp. salt
1 tbsp. sugar

1 cup (125 g.) all-purpose flour
4 large eggs
For Egg Wash: 1 egg and pinch of salt

Pre-heat oven to 425◦F/220◦C degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
Preparing batter:
Combine water, butter, salt and sugar in a saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a boil and stir occasionally. At boil, remove from heat and sift in the flour, stirring to combine completely.
Return to heat and cook, stirring constantly until the batter dries slightly and begins to pull away from the sides of the pan.
Transfer to a bowl and stir with a wooden spoon 1 minute to cool slightly.
Add 1 egg. The batter will appear loose and shiny.
Transfer to a bowl and stir with a wooden spoon 1 minute to cool slightly.
Add 1 egg. The batter will appear loose and shiny.
t is at this point that you will add in the next egg. Repeat until you have incorporated all the eggs.
Transfer batter to a pastry bag fitted with a large open tip (I piped directly from the bag opening without a tip). Pipe choux about 1 inch-part in the baking sheets. Choux should be about 1 inch high about 1 inch wide.
Using a clean finger dipped in hot water, gently press down on any tips that have formed on the top of choux when piping. You want them to retain their ball shape, but be smoothly curved on top.

Brush tops with egg wash (1 egg lightly beaten with pinch of salt).
Bake the choux at 425◦F/220◦C degrees until well-puffed and turning lightly golden in color, about 10 minutes.
Lower the temperature to 350◦F/180◦C degrees and continue baking until well-colored and dry, about 20 minutes more. Remove to a rack and cool. Can be stored in a airtight box overnight.

I have to say: I’ve never been happier to be “forced” to stick to a recipe. I always have the tendency to change something, even a little something, but this recipe was simply perfect! Pate a choux is one of those recipes that I have always thought was way too complicated and refined for me…something only professionals or very gifted people could make. Instead, this part of the challenge was a great boost to my self-esteem. It came out perfect at the first try. I have found the perfect pate a choux recipe on the first attempt! What a blast.

The second step was to make the creme patissiere. Cat let us choose the flavor of the creme patissiere and I had no doubts: I have been having some strong cravings for coffee-flavored desserts lately so the idea of making a coffee cream came immediately to my mind.

Here again is the recipe she gave us:

Vanilla Crème Patissiere
Makes half batch

1 cup (225 ml.) whole milk
2 tbsp cornstarch
6 tbsp (100 gr) sugar
1 large egg
2 large egg yolks

2 tbsp (30 gr) unsalted butter
1 tsp Vanilla

Dissolve cornstarch in ¼ cup of milk. Combine the remaining milk with the sugar in a saucepan; bring to boil; remove from heat.
Beat the whole egg, then the yolks into the cornstarch mixture. Pour 1/3 of boiling milk into the egg mixture, whisking constantly so that the eggs do not begin to cook.
Return the remaining milk to boil. Pour in the hot egg mixture in a stream, continuing whisking.
Continue whisking (this is important – you do not want the eggs to solidify/cook) until the cream thickens and comes to a boil.
Remove from heat and beat in the butter and vanilla.
Pour cream into a stainless steel/ceramic bowl. Press plastic wrap firmly against the surface. Chill immediately and until ready to use.

For Coffee Pastry Cream: dissolve 1 ½ teaspoons instant espresso powder in 1 ½ teaspoons boiling water. Whisk into pastry cream with butter and vanilla.

when you are ready to assemble your piece montée, using a plain pastry tip, pierce the bottom of each choux. Fill the choux with pastry cream using either the same tip or a star tip, and place on a paper-lined sheet. Choux can be refrigerated briefly at this point while you make your glaze.

The third step, the “evil step” I would like to call it, is making the caramel glaze and assembling the whole thing

Hard Caramel Glaze
1 cup (225 g.) sugar

½ teaspoon lemon juice

Combine sugar and lemon juice in a saucepan with a metal kitchen spoon stirring until the sugar resembles wet sand. Place on medium heat; heat without stirring until sugar starts to melt around the sides of the pan and the center begins to smoke. Begin to stir sugar. Continue heating, stirring occasionally until the sugar is a clear, amber color. Remove from heat immediately; place bottom of pan in ice water to stop the cooking. Use immediately.
Once you are ready to assemble your piece montée, dip the top of each choux in your glaze, and start assembling on your cake board/plate/sheet. Continue dipping and adding choux in levels using the glaze to hold them together as you build up. When you have finished the design of your piece montée, you may drizzle with remaining glaze or use ribbons, sugar cookie cut-outs, almonds, flowers, etc. to decorate.
Here I have to say, I did a big mistake. I did not look carefully into the instructions on how to make the cone and I ended up making a bit of a mess. But that was not the “evil” part. The evil was the caramel. I was immerging the tip of one puff pastry into the caramel when it slipped out of my hands and in catching it I put my fingers on the suuuuuper hot caramel. I burnt the tips of my finger soooooo badly that I had to stay with my hand into iced water for almost half an hour. Needless to say, my fingers were hurting so much that I wasn’t even able to continue assembling the tower. I had to hurry so much that the result was not really a stable, high tower L The other result: my finger tips still have the marks of the burns after 3 weeks! I definitely have an unfinished business with caramel!

By the way, despite the bad assemblage the puff pastries were delicious, so in any case I can say that the burns were worth it!

May 24, 2010

Happy Monday: Macine, a well know store-bought cookie in Italy


Here is another DIY recipe. The Macine are a very famous store-bought cookie in Italy, produced by Mulino Bianco. I LOVE these cookies. They are very simple, yet with a  very distinguished flavor. They are crunchy yet they become very soft and creamy when soaked into warm milk. Warm milk and Macine are my favourite breakfast of all times when I’m home.

As of today, I'm leaving for Italy in 3 days but I'm already dreaming of my first breakfast with these cookies. However, I really miss them here in the US so I thought I would try to recreate them. The only twist I gave them is to make them without the central hole and instead to fill them with jam.

Honestly, I made these changes because I was very skeptical about being able to reproduce them, so I thought the jam taste would compensate for the lack of grandeur of my homemade version. As I said, their taste is quite unique; their distinguished character comes mainly from the presence of cream but Italian cooking cream is very different from both sour cream as well as whipping cream so I didn’t think I could get too close to the original taste. Well, it turned out I was wrong. Now I know that when I have nostalgia I can temporary remedy to it with these home-made Macine.


500 gr all purpose flour
50 gr cornstarch
150 gr confectioner's sugar
200 gr unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 egg
5-6 tbsp cream
1 tbsp baking powder
pinch of salt

jam, marmalade, nutella for the filling, as desired

Preheat the oven to 350F (180C).

The process is very easy: simply put all the ingredients together in a big bowl or on a lightly floured surface. Mix well and roll out the dough and with a rolling pin make the dough about 7 mm thick. 

Use a cookie cutter to obtain many round cookies (and a smaller cookie cutter to make the whole in the center if you want to make the original Macine). Place the cookies onto a cookie pan covered with parchment paper. 

Put a spoon of your chosen filling in half of the rounds obtained and cover them with the other half. 

To make sure you close the cookies well, push with the thumb all around the cookies.

Bake for 20 minutes or until the borders of the cookies start to get brown. Let cool completely on a cooling rack and then sprinkle with confectioner's sugar just before serving.


May 19, 2010

Cheddar Panini, Photography for Beginners, and my first DSLR


I did it! I finally bought my very first DSLR! I have been thinking about buying a new camera since when I started this blog. The camera I've used so far is a nice little point and shoot that does great pictures to be honest but it doesn't have any of the options that a "serious" camera give you, such as to control aperture, shutter speed, white balance, ISO...not even some basic ones that I've heard even a few point and shoot have. I did not want to rush into buying an expensive camera though. After all, I have been blogging for slightly more than two months, I'm still waiting for my working permit (i.e. no real income since January) and above all...I've never done photography before! Yes, I love taking pictures when I go on holiday but until a couple of months ago I didn't even know what "shooting in macro" meant. To sum up, it just seemed too early for me to buy a DSLR.

However, one day I really got frustrated by a failed attempt to photograph a wonderful cake...that just did not look wonderful at all in the pictures :( It was then that I really became aware of how bad my pictures were. I mean, I already knew it but that day I started to feel the urgency to change the situation. I HAD to do something to improve my blog pictures...and quickly. I have spent the last two months reading, reading, and reading. I started by asking advice to friends and other food bloggers. I've read their stories and I've got to know the most commonly used cameras. I also got good advice about which websites, blogs, and/or forums were good to get information about photography and again I read, I read, and I read. I read all the tips for beginners, all the theory about ISO, aperture, shutter speed, white balance, all the advice about framing and composition, and more, and more, and more.

At a certain point I felt it was time to put things into practice. I still waited before buying a camera. A real DSLR was a bit intimidating to me and not just for the price but for the fact that I don't have a great relationship with technology. I think I have already said that about technology on my first post. My lack of self-esteem with respect to it made me even doubt I could keep up with this blog! But hey, I did it...I kept up with it. It was time for me to start taking my blog a bit more (or less?) seriously and to work on my technology-fear.

So, first of all I have started to put into practice all the advice and tips I read about the right light to shoot pictures, I moved from the kitchen to my husband little studio to shoot because there I can have a decent table next to a window with lot of natural light. I also spent a weekend going to art&crafts stores to buy white foam and white poster paper to shoot as well as other types of scrapbook paper and I played all weekend with lightning and shades and backgrounds. Next, I bought a tripod...yes, long before buying my first DSLR I bought a tripod. Oh man, I want to say thank you to all the food bloggers around who post on forums about how they shoot and about photography tips: I followed ALL their advice and I have to pictures got soooo much better. In fact, my first three pictures accepted by Foodgawker and Tastespotting were shoot with my humble point and shoot, but after following all this advice!

However, I still felt the need to upgrade my camera! Luckily, I have a wonderful husband who one day told me "you should go for it! buy a DSLR! You deserve it!". His words, plus the fact that we are soon leaving for our first trip together to Italy convinced me to buy the camera earlier than I planned. After all, it will be nice to be practicing all the manual photography theory I read in the last two month while on holiday! So there you go: that's how I got my first DSLR: a wonderful Nikon d40....nothing fancy....nothing waaaay too expensive. As I read from many bloggers, the camera alone is not enough. There is no point in buying a camera which is well above your skills. So I started with a good but still easy camera. I read hundreds of reviews and the thing I liked about the Nikon d40 was that every review was saying it's a great camera to transition from a point and shoot to a manual. Given my technology fear and my lack of photography knowledge I thought that was the most desirable quality. I did not want to buy a camera and not to use it because too hard to learn how to.

I think I'll spend a lot of time talking about my new camera in the future posts, so I guess I should cut short and just give the recipe of the wonderful cheddar panini, which had the honor to be the first food subject of the first few pictures taken with my new camera. As I said above, the camera alone is not enough to take great pictures...I still have sooo much to learn but boy it did make a huge different taking pictures with my new Nikon. As for the panini....amazing is not enough to describe them! Too bad the camera cannot recreate their smell!

Cheddar Panini
yields 5-6 medium size panini or one loaf of bread

1/2 cup milk
 2.5 oz unsalted butter
16 oz all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
2 tbsp white sugar
2 large eggs
1 cup grated Cheddar
2 tsp red peppers flakes (optional)

Preheat the oven to 350F (180C) and line a baking pan with parchment paper (or a loaf pan).

In a small bowl heat the milk and butter at 50% power in the microwave until the butter melts (about 2 minutes). Cool to room temperature.

Sift the flour, baking powder, salt and sugar into a large bowl and mix.

Use a fork to beat the eggs into the cooled milk mixture. Pour into the flour mixture. Use a baking spatula to stir until the batter just moistened. Don't overmix. Stir in the grated Cheddar.

Form 5-6 balls of medium size (you can alternatively put the batter into a loaf pan but I like the idea of the panini because the cooked bread will be less dense). Bake about 35 minutes (45 if you bake it as a single loaf) or until golden. 

It is great while still warm. However, it keeps very well for a couple of days if covered with a kitchen towel. Just rewarm it in the microwave for 20 seconds or in a toaster or in the oven at very low temperature to avoid burning it. 

Inspiration: Kitchen for Kids, by Jennifer Low

May 16, 2010

Homemade pita bread


Today I discovered that it is true: homemade pita bread is very easy to make and is sooo much better than store-bought pita! I had finished bread and I had some free time so I decided to make something I had never made before. I immediately thought of all those times that I ran into the pita bread recipe in other blogs or websites. Everybody makes the same comment about how they will never ever go back to buy pita breads after having tried to make them at home. Such a strong and shared statement couldn't leave a bread-lover like me indifferent. As I said, my result confirmed other bloggers' opinion:  yummy! super duper yummy! Good-bye store pita bread.

Pita Bread
(yields 6 pitas)


16 oz white bread flour
1 tsp salt
1/2 oz fresh yeast
scant 2/3 cup lukewarm water
2 tsp extra-virgin olive oil

Sift the flour and salt together into a bowl. In a small bowl, mix the yeast with the water until dissolved, then stir in the olive oil and pour into a large bowl.

Gradually beat the flour into the yeast nixture, then knead the mixture to make a soft dough.

Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for 5 minutes until smooth and elastic. Place in a large clean bowl, cover with lightly oiled plastic wrap and let rise, in a warm place, for about 1 hour or until doubled in bulk.

Punch down the dough. On a lightly floured surface, divide it into 6 equal pieces and shape into balls. Cover with oiled plastic wrap; let rest for 5 minutes.

Roll out each ball of dough in turn to an oval about 1/4-inch thick and 6 inches long. Place on a floured dish towel and cover with lightly oiled plastic wrap. Let rise at room temperature for 20-30 minutes.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 450F. Place 2 or 3 baking sheets in the oven to heat at the same time. Place two or three pita breads on each baking sheet and bake for 6-10 minutes or until puffed up; they do not need to brown. It is very important that the oven has reached the recommended temperature before the pita breads are baked. This is what ensures that they will puff up.

Transfer the pitas to a wire rack to cool until warm, then cover with a dish towel to keep them soft.

  • To make whole-wheat pita breads, replace half the white flour with whole-wheat flour.
  • You can also make smaller round pita breads about 4 inches in diameter.
  • If you want them a bit more on the sweet side you can add 1 tbsp. of sugar or honey

Check out many other bread-related goodies on YeastSpotting!

    May 10, 2010

    Happy Monday: Got chocolate?! Triple chocolate scones


    There you go...once again I asked Wally "what would you like me to bake for tomorrow's breakfast, Amore?" and the answer was...duh duh duh duh....of course: chocolate chip scones :(
    Booooring! I mean, not that chocolate chip scones are boring or not good....but I don't like making always the same thing. The Daring Baker in me really got a lot of confidence already from the first Daring Bakers Challenge....I cannot make just chocolate chip scones.

    At the same time, I know how much Wally loves chocolate. I think I could even make chocolate lasagne and he would eat them (hummm maybe I should explore this possibility). So, that's where this recipe comes from. These are not JUST chocolate chip scones...these are THE chocolate chips scones, actually the TRIPLE chocolate scones. The name comes from the fact that they are a chocolate scone dough with both semisweet and white chocolate chips. Whenever you have chocolate cravings (or any other sweet craving!), these are what you need: you sure will be satisfied. And if you are not a big chocolate craver (like myself) you should know that I LOVED these scones too. And for me to use the word "love" it means I had to take them out of my sight or I would have finished them in one day.

    The inspiration comes from Joy of Baking. I did want to balance out the semisweet chocolate taste so I put more white chocolate relative to semisweet. Also, I did not do the egg wash. I usually prefer to brush the scones dough with milk. I feel it makes the final scones softer and a bit lighter....or maybe that is just to make my conscience feel better.

    Triple Chocolate Scones
    makes 8 big scones

    160 ml heavy whipping cream
    1 large egg
    1 tsp pure vanilla extract
    245 gr all purpose flour
    25 gr natural unsweetened cocoa powder
    100 gr granulated white sugar
    2 1/2 tsp baking powder
    1/4 tsp salt
    75 gr cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
    30 gr semisweet chocolate chips
    70 gr white chocolate chips
    2 tbsp milk to brush the scones

    Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

    In a small bowl, whisk together the whipping cream, egg, and vanilla extract. Set aside.

    In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, cocoa powder, sugar, baking powder and salt. Cut the butter into the dry ingredients mixture until it resembles coarse crumbs. Stir in the chocolate chips. Add the cream mixture and stir just until the dough comes together into a ball (add more cream and/or flour as necessary).

    Turn the dough onto a floured surface; knead gently a few times and shape into a ball. On a baking sheet covered with parchment paper, pat the dough into a circle about 1/2" thick and 8" in diameter. Using a sharp knife, cut wedges in the dough, being careful not to cut all the way through. Finally, brush the tops of the scones with milk.

    Bake for about 20 minutes or until the edges start to get brown. Cool completely on a wire rack before serving.

    Source: Joy of Baking

    May 07, 2010

    Torta della Nonna and a little story of my family


    At the beginning of March the school where I work had a wonderful gala called La Dolce Vita, which aimed at raising money for the school (we are finally moving into a bigger space in September). As part of the fundraising effort many items were made available for an auction. The first item of the night was "Dolci per un anno" (a dessert per month for a year). I was the one offering this item, suggested by the organizers for its potential of success. In fact, it was a great success because this item alone raised $US 800. The item featured a tiramisu for the night of the gala and other 11 Italian desserts along the year.

    April was the second month and Lisa (the winner of the item) was going to have a party so we decided that Torta della Nonna was an appropriate dessert. Torta della Nonna is a very typical Italian dessert and one of my favorite of all times. It is probably also one of the first desserts I've ever made by myself. My mom never really loved making desserts, while I have always loved it. After all, I am the sweet tooth of the family. So, as soon as I got old enough to use the stove by myself I became the one in charge of making desserts for family occasions. Torta della Nonna is also one of my brother's favorite, so I got to practice it over and over again. 

    What to say about this is simply wonderful. It is made of a very simple pasta frolla crust (pasta frolla is similar to shortbread), filled with a very light lemony cream and topped with pine nuts. All completed by a sprinkle of confectioners' sugar before serving. Just perfect! Perfect for a dinner, an afternoon party, a snack...and even for breakfast. 

    The one in the picture above is the cake I made for Lisa last weekend and was taken before the delivery (that's why there is no confectioners' sugar on top yet). Lisa and her guests said it was wonderful....too bad I could not eat it :(  
    I will have to make it again, soon! In the meantime, here is my version.

    Torta della Nonna
    For the crust

    300 gr all purpose flour
    120 gr sugar
    190 gr butter at room temperature
    2 tsp baking powder
    2 egg yolks
    vanilla extract

    For the cream

    500 ml whole milk
    4 egg yolks
    80 gr sugar
    40 gr flour
    skin of 1 lemon
    2 tsp vanilla extract
    cream or butter

    For the decoration 

    Pine nuts
    Confectioners' sugar

    To make the crust
    Sift the flour on a flat surface, together with the baking powder and the vanilla sugar (or extract).

    Make a hole in the center of the flour (what we call the fountain) and put the butter, the sugar and the egg yolk in it.

    Quickly mix all the ingredients with your hands, making sure not to over work the dough. 

    Wrap the dough into plastic wrap and let it sit in a cold place for about an hour. (I usually put it in the fridge)

    To make the cream
    On the stove, warm up all the milk (but one glass) together with the vanilla.

    In the meantime, in a small bowl whisk the egg yolks and the sugar with an electric mixer. Add the flour and the cold milk set aside, alternating the two.

    Slowly add the mixture to the warm milk stirring well to avoid the formation of lumps.

    Finally add the skin of half a lemon (cut not grated) and bring the mixture to boil, stirring continuously. It is very important to keep stirring to obtain a smooth cream. (If lumps start to form you can still get rid of them by mixing for a minute with an electric mixer but only until before it starts to become dense)

    Let the mixture boil on low flame for a few minutes until it starts to get denser, then turn off the stove and let the cream cool down completely, stirring from time to time.

    Before using the cream take off the lemon skin and add a spoon or two of butter or cream (both sour and whipping are fine. I personally prefer the whipping cream because it compensates the acidic of the lemon and thus makes the cream a bit sweeter and also a bit lighter).

    To assemble the cake
    Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F (180 degrees C).

    Turn the dough onto a slightly floured surface and with a rolling pin give it a round shape about 3-4 mm thick. Place the round shaped dough into a greased pan, poke it with the tips of a fork and spread the cream uniformly and then also the pine nuts.

    Bake for 40-45 minutes. Let it cool completely. Sprinkle confectioners' sugar just before serving.


    Picture by Megan McKearney

    May 03, 2010

    Happy Monday: White Cake


    Last weekend was a very busy weekend. I felt I was constantly on the move and a lot of the activities were related to food. I practically cooked or baked non-stop from Friday afternoon to Sunday evening. Unfortunately, I did a lot of cooking but not a lot of blogging. Not only I didn't blog on two desserts that I made (a blueberry tiramisu for a dinner Wally and I had with friends and a Torta della Nonna that unfortunately was not for us....more on this later) but I did not even have a chance to take pictures of these two desserts. Everything I made over the weekend was for somebody else or finished even before I could try to do some preparation for pictures.  

    This is true also for the third dessert of the weekend on which I'm blogging about. I made a wonderful crust  and lemon cream for the Torta della Nonna. Both recipes together required six egg yolks....which means....six egg whites left for another goody too make!!! There are several things that can be done with white eggs only and plenty of blogs and websites about such recipes. However, in the vein of Italian desserts I looked around for some Italian website. I found a great thread on cookaround about how to use left over egg whites. I know, I's in Italian...but sooner or later some Italian speaker might read my blog :)

    I took the recipe of this White Cake from this thread. It's a typical simple, plain, white cake that in the Italian tradition is perfect for breakfast...nothing better to start the week, I thought. The result: I loved this cake. We all did! In fact...only a small portion of the cake got to Monday morning. Definitely a recipe to keep...and not just for breakfast.

    White Cake

    250 gr all purpose flour
    180 gr butter, at room temperature
    130 gr sugar
    5 white eggs
    16 gr baking powder
    1 pinch of salt
    confectioners' sugar

    Preheat the oven to 240 degrees F and grease a round 9" pan.

    Mix together the butter and the sugar until you obtain a soft cream. Add the dry ingredients, flour, salt and baking powder, and finally add the white eggs, not whipped but previously whisked with a little bit of lukewarm water. 

    Pour into the pan and bake for 40 minutes. Turn off the oven and leave the cake in for another 30 minutes. 

    Take out the cake and decorate with confectioners' sugar, if desired.

    Source: inspired by Cookaround