Sunday, April 29, 2007

The Ambroisie

Ever since my visit to Hidemi Sugino’s Tokyo patisserie, Idemi, and bought his book, I’ve been flipping through it at least once a week, usually before bed, and mainly to drool over all the pretty pictures and relive the cake extravaganza I had with my Le Cordon Bleu classmates. Although I did pinch a few ideas from the book here and there I had never mustered up the courage to try any of the recipes in full. For one thing, even though the recipes are very clearly written with loads of photos to illustrate his points, they are quite involved and require a lot of ingredients. Then there is the fear factor. What if they don't taste or look anything like his creations? Finally, even if they turn out exactly like they're supposed to, the recipes need to be scaled down because unless you have 20 hungry dessert fanatics at your beck and call, what would you do with all that cake, delicious beyond belief as they may be.

Last week, my chocolate supplier was nice enough to let me try some of the pistachio paste that they carry. It was only a little tub of about 40g and I wanted to make something special with it. My eyes fell onto the cover of Mr. Sugino’s book, which migrates between the coffee table and my bedside table on a regular basis. On it is his signature dessert and one of my all time favorites, the Ambroisie.

I had it once at Idemi and never forgot the taste. I don’t often order chocolate mousse desserts because most of the times the chocolate is so heavy and sweet that half way through I find myself wishing I’d picked something lighter instead. Not Mr. Sugino’s Ambroisie. It was the perfect lightness and sweetness to allow the pistachio flavors to shine through. So it was decided. That’s how I will do with the pistachio paste.

The Ambroisie is made up of chocolate joconde biscuit, pistachio joconde biscuit, pistachio mousse and raspberry jam encased in chocolate mousse, with a layer of chocolate glaze covering it all up. It took me two days to scale down the recipe and figure out the logistics (making sure which flat trays will go horizontally into the freezer and measuring out the various ring molds I own to calculate the correct amount of ingredients took a while, and overcoming my procrastination/performance anxiety took its own fair share of time too). I didn’t want to rush myself and fail because I knew that would just completely crush me and it would take me forever to regain confidence to try another of his recipes. So I gave myself plenty of time. On day one I baked the two different kinds of joconde and made the chocolate petals that would go around the cake. Day two saw me making the mousses, assembling the cakes and putting them into the freezer to harden overnight. Day three was the day that we were due at a friend’s house for afternoon tea and chocolate fondue so that morning I made the glaze, poured it over the cakes, stuck the chocolate petals around and dotted the center of cake with a tiny piece of gold leaf. The only step I skipped was making my own raspberry jam and I followed Mr. Sugino’s recipe to a T.

I had a momentary insanity attack when I was making the chocolate glaze. I measured out 11g of gelatin and somehow felt that it was too much and decided to use only half. The resulting glaze was runny despite cooling it to a dangerously low temperature, but I poured it onto the cakes anyway. Instead of clinging onto the sides, most of it ran right off. Seeing two days of hard work going down the drain, I gathered up my wits and poured the pool of ran-off glaze into a bowl, reconstituted the gelatin leaves that I left out, melted it in a water bath, added them into the glaze and re-poured it over the cakes. This time, it stuck. I don’t know what I was thinking doubting the glaze recipe in the first place. If the master of use-almost-no-gelatin-so-the-texture-stays-so-light-that-they-are-not-fit-for-travel says 11g of gelatin is needed for the glaze, then 11g it is. Not one gram less! Geeze!

Disaster averted, now I had time to sit back and admire the Ambroisie. They turned out almost identical in appearance to the ones at Idemi, except not all of my chocolate petals turned out well so I had only three petals per cake vs. Idemi’s four. Flavor-wise, the chocolate mousse was light as a cloud, due to the pâte a bombe and the absence of gelatin (it was held up purely on the strength of the chocolate and the power of my praying/finger-crossing/will power). I did add 50% more gelatin in the pistachio mousse, which resulted in a somewhat denser texture by Idemi standard. The pistachio paste I got from the supplier was not the brown pure ground-up pistachio that I favor. Instead it was a pistachio praline paste, made from caramelized pistachio and had a distinct alcohol/almond aroma. I had doubts about it because of the strong smell but after baking it into the joconde and cooking it into a crème Anglaise, the smell was not detectable. I did have a problem with the flavor, however. I should’ve used more pistachio than the recipe called for to counter the fact that the paste was not 100% pure pistachio. At Idemi I remember the pistachio flavor was quite distinct, but in my recreation with the pistachio praline paste, it was more subtle. You could tell it was there, but it could barely hold its own against the chocolate. Next time I think I’ll double the pistachio quantity.

With the Ambroise under my belt I now feel more confident tackling his other recipes. Maybe I’ll try Everest, or the pineapple coconut number that prompted me to buy a dewdrop shaped cake mold that had been sitting in my kitchen for the last six months. So many recipes to try and I’m sure each experience will be as rewarding as the Ambroisie.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Leftover Fun

I am never one to waste food. I always freeze the extra egg whites; I never throw away any sablee or puff pastry dough scraps; I even save the pineapple cores and coriander roots to flavor soups. If it’s edible, I’ll find a way to use it, some way, anyway.

When I made the Opéra the other day, I miscalculated how much coffee butter cream I needed and ended up with lots of leftover. Even though I’m not a fan of butter cream in large quantities (I only tolerate it in Opera because it’s such a thin layer) it still seems like a crime to throw it away. Plus, it’s coffee flavored!

I happened to have some cupcakes leftover from the preparation for a Food & Travel magazine photo shoot sitting in the fridge so I decided to put the butter cream on the cupcakes. This is the result and the Opéra from which it had spawn.

Then it hit me that if you fill it with some chocolate ganache, soak with some coffee syrup, and top with coffee cream. You’ll have all the flavors of an Opéra without the labor-intensive process. Now won't that be nice?


Ten batches of macarons, two batches of cupcakes and two batches of sponge cakes later, I still haven’t come off the pastry-making high brought on by the month-long hiatus. What to make next? Then I remembered the congnac I asked for but never drank on the flight from the States. Of course, I’ll make an Opéra! It’s been ages since I’ve made an Opéra, mainly because it’s such an intense flavor that you almost need a grand occasion to make it, just like its namesake, the grand Paris Opera. But lately, I’ve been pining for some strong tasting desserts. Maybe because I have, in the large part, been disappointed by the dessert scene in Singapore, or maybe it’s because I haven’t done any dessert binging in such a long time that my body is sending me the signal to indulge. Either way, today is the day to make Opéra.

Although many believe that Dalloyau was the first to have come up with the recipe, known as L'Opéra, it was Louis Clichy who debuted this cake at the 1903 Exposition Culinaire in Paris with his own name emblazoned across the top. Regardless of who created it, the basic components of Opéra are joconde biscuit soaked in coffee and cognac flavored syrup, layered between coffee flavored butter cream and chocolate ganache. It is traditionally covered with pâte à glacer in a shiny mirror surface with simply the word Opéra written across. Sometimes it’s adorned with a few specks of gold leaves, but the overall effect is very minimalist. This is a cake that has enough flavors to speak for itself that no frivolous decoration is needed.

A good Opéra needs to be very low in height. Mine usually clocks in at just slightly more than 2.5cm with three layers of joconde. I also prefer to use a chocolate glacage to cover the surface in place of the pâte à glacer for who needs compound chocolate when you can have the real thing?

When I made my first Opéra, I made the mistake of not soaking the joconde with enough syrup. Since the joconde is rather dry by nature and neither butter cream nor ganache is rich in moisture either, if not properly syruped (hm, is that a word?) you’ll end up with a dry Opéra, which is still nice but doesn’t have nearly as much oomph as a properly syruped one. Although easy in theory, I kept on under-soaking my joconde because it is sometimes scary to brush so much syrup into one thin layer of cake. Then I had a piece of Opéra at Joel Robuchon’s Tokyo outlet, L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon. From the side the only light beige you see is that of the coffee buttercream. The joconde is completely soaked in coffee syrup that it blends in with the ganache. When you taste a piece it reminds you exactly of having an apertiff after a late night dinner followed by a square of bittersweet chocolate with a strong cup of coffee. This is what a real Opéra is supposed to taste like and I finally understood the importance of syruping.

From that day on I put into my Opéra (approximately 13cm x 21cm) almost 240ml of syrup. Yup, that’s right, that’s one whole cup soaked into three layers of joconde. Far from being sopping wet, it needs this much syrup to bring all the flavors together, trust me! So next time you make an Opéra, make sure to soak those joconde layers really well.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Kitchen Disasters

I guess it’s only natural that once you’ve been away from something for so long it takes a little time to get back into the swing of things. For the past month and a half I’ve been in the US helping my parents pack up the house and move back to Shanghai for their retirement. The only cooking I did was frying up a few batches of donuts, and tossing the occasional salad. Once we arrived in Shanghai, food was so cheap and yummy that all we did was take-out and delivery everyday. Needless to say, I was itching to get back to my own kitchen, to be surrounded by all my kitchen gadgets and whip up a few things.

The perfect opportunity came up when Lynette asked me to be part of the photo shoot for Food & Travel magazine in Singapore. For that I needed to create two things and my thoughts immediately turned to macarons. I’ve been dragging my feet testing out the oven in my new place and this would finally put the procrastination to a stop.

I arrived back on Saturday and after a relaxing dinner I set to work on Sunday to test the first batch of macarons. Since I didn’t know how many trials I had to do before I could get it right I decided to cut the recipe by half, which will only yield 6-7 macarons per batch.

The first sign of trouble appeared when the egg white wouldn’t whip, at all. Then I realized that the Ziploc bag I used to keep the frozen egg whites was leaking so when I defrosted it in a water bath, water had seeped into the egg white. No problem, I start off with fresh egg whites, except the batter was really thin and runny and the macarons turned out like big puffy almond cookies, which tasted fine, but just couldn’t be called macarons. I chalked it up to the fresh egg whites that I used, so I decided to let the egg whites sit inside the fridge over night and try again the next day. Lo and behold, the batch the next day turn out splendidly in shape and texture, however the color was brown instead of green. That was due to too much direct heat. Nothing that can’t be solved by a mere change in oven setting, no biggie.

While whipping up batch number three I realized that the mistake I made the day before was not using fresh egg white, but not cutting down the egg white in half along with the rest of the ingredients! Duh! On to batch number four and I got tired of washing my silpats so I took out the imitation silpat I bought at Pantry Magic. The sales girl assured me that it would perform the same way as the real thing. Not! My poor lemon flavored macarons all stuck to the silpat and wouldn’t come off. I managed to salvage them by scraping them off with a pastry cutter but some of them don’t look round any more. I think it’s a shame that Pantry Magic is trying to pass off substandard product, for what is a silpat mat good for if it isn’t non-stick? After the imitation silpat incident I stuck to the Made in France versions and managed to churn out three good batches of macarons.

Now let’s talk about the raspberry hearts. They look ok in this photo, but when I first made it I forgot to put sugar in the cake batter. I guess it’s all for the better that I forgot to add the vanilla too because we were able to recycle it by having it for dinner and it tasted kind of like corn bread. Not too bad for a kitchen accident, heh?

For emergency backups, I made a batch of chocolate cupcakes just in case. They look ok but just don’t try to eat them because the icing was way too sweet for my taste.

So all in all, they turned out quite alright despite the myriad of kitchen accidents in between. But Man! Forgetting to add sugar to the cake batter?