Friday, December 25, 2009

Project 04: Butterscotch Budino with Sel Gris

While I've never had the privilege of dining at Pizzeria Mozza due to time constraints (there's simply too many restaurants to try and not enough time!), I did try one of their offerings: the butterscotch budino. It was inconspicuously listed in the dessert menu at Bottega Louie, to which I immediately ordered.

It looked innocent enough, a tiny glass filled with a khaki-colored pudding, a thin layer of caramel and topped with whipped cream. And yet, it had the ability to transform my dining companion and me into ravenous animals—despite the fact we were stuffed from dinner already. The custardy pudding was complex with a full-bodied caramelized flavor and was luxuriously smooth, but the main show stopper was the delicate sea salt that was hidden from view by the whipped cream and caramel. It gave each bite a little crunch and a burst of saltiness that cuts through the dessert's sweetness. It was the stuff that dreams were made of.

Since then, I've been pining over the budino—until I found the recipe online in New York Times. Adapted from Dahlia Narvaez of Pizzeria Mozza, this was the real deal! Since the recipe serves 10, I made it for my friends' pre-Christmas party.

I'm happy to report that the recipe is straightforward and the results divine. I did made several changes as I am not good in following directions (I failed first grade P.E. because of it—it was strangely similar to Zoolander's situation where he couldn't make a left turn).

The first alternation is that I only used 1/2 of a teaspoon of kosher salt since the recommended 1 1/2 teaspoon was too much for my taste (it gave the caramel a soy sauce flavor, no joke). Also, because I had no dark rum, I used Kahlua instead and upped it to 1/4 of a cup. It gave the budino a rich coffee flavor—that little something extra that took it to the next level.

I've also switched the fleur de sel for sel gris as I like its larger crystals (ie. greater crunch).  And lastly I omitted the cream topping due to my conscience. You see, if you read the entire recipe, you'll see that it has around 4 cups of cream and a stick of butter—I couldn't in my right conscience add more cream on top of it to my friends. In addition, I made the serving size smaller by serving the budino in double shot glasses. My friends loved it.

Give the recipe a try and let me know how it compares to Pizzeria Mozza's version!

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Sweet Tour

You're in! Thank you to all who responded—you're now on the list for the exclusive Sweet Tour!

Because of the overwhelmingly number of positive responses, I had to rework my plan. My original idea of just having you all come to my house for each dessert tasting wasn't going to fly because of space issues (doesn't help that I'm situated in the boonies as well). So, after a few staged Sweet Tooth events—thanks to my guinea pigs, I mean, OG Sweet Tooths—the logical solution is to begin a dessert tour!

Below is my schedule, which is really a dessert hit-list. Each week, I plan to tackle a dessert, and you'll get to participate by either signing up to be a host and/or sponsor:

• An ideal host is someone with a working oven and stove. By donating their kitchen for a specific dessert, they basically determine where the venue is, which in turns establish the number of Sweet Tooths can participate. Just as it's impossible to fit thousands in the Troubadour, it's not prudent to fit a crowd in a bachelor's pad... you get the idea. In exchange for the use of your kitchen, you get unlimited bragging rights as well as control of the guest list.

• Sponsors on the other hand is more of a shareholder. They invest in the dessert by donating ingredients needed in exchange for a return on their investment or as they say, for a bigger piece of the pie (figuratively and literally). In most cases, sponsors get extra portions of the dessert. And sometimes, if the dessert is for a baking contest, the main sponsor gets a cut of the prize (if the dessert wins that is). For example, I plan to enter the Scharffen Berger contest for a chance to win 10 grand. The sponsor who decides to fund that particular project will get a meal of their choice if the recipe wins.

Once I have a host for a specific project, I'll let Sweet Tooths who live in the general vicinity know a few days ahead of time to put together a small gathering. We can do a potluck, tea party... anything really—the sky's the limit. Take a look at the schedule and let me know which dessert tickles your fancy :)

Ps. Sweet Tooths who live ways away from LA need not be sad. If you're up for sparing a few coins for shipping, I can always send you a sample!

Friday, November 27, 2009

Project 03: Turning Arancini Upside Down

Although there are no written records, the legend of Arancini started with a thrifty grandmother in Sicily and a pot of leftover risotto. She fashioned the rice in little balls in the image of the dainty oranges growing outside her kitchen window and fried them golden brown. When she served the little croquettes to her family, it was such a hit they asked for the name of the dish, to which she named it, “Arancini,” after the orange tree.

At least, that was what I was imagining when I had my first Arancini. Simultaneously crispy, gooey and creamy, it’s one of those rare dishes that make you smile and swoon.

After much experimenting, I am proud to present my own version as a playful dessert. Inspired by rice pudding, I started out with a sweet risotto base, scented with vanilla and nutmeg, to create the perfect backdrop to showcase Kahlua’s complex flavors. I’ve also made other improvements such as replacing normal breadcrumbs with panko for a more delicate crunch and the traditional marinara sauce with a bittersweet chocolate sauce.

Not only is this dish fun to eat, it also makes for a entertaining party activity. Gather up a few friends, roll up your sleeves, and have fun! It’s what the grandmother would have wanted. Thanks for reading and happy cooking!

Ps. If you’re ever pressed for time, the risotto alone makes for an elegant dessert. Just serve with a dollop of whipped cream and a sprinkling of nutmeg on top.

Kahlua Arancini di Riso
Serves 4

Kahlua Risotto
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
3/4 cup arborio rice
1 1/2 cups water, warmed
1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 cups milk, warmed
1 cup heavy cream, warmed
1 teaspoon Madagascar vanilla bean paste (extract is fine too)
1/4 cup Kahlua Hazelnut
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1 egg, beaten
Panko bread crumbs
Canola Oil

Chocolate Kahlua Sauce
4 oz. bittersweet chocolate, chopped
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon Kahlua Hazelnut

Melt butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add rice and stir, making sure each grain is coated with butter to prevent them from sticking. Keep stirring for 5 minutes to let the mixture toast until lightly browned—this will give extra flavor to the risotto.

Add water, sugar, salt and cook, stirring, until the liquid evaporates. Add milk, 1/2 cup at a time, stirring after each addition for a few minutes. When the rice has absorbed the liquid, add more. Remember to stir frequently as it's the key to a creamy risotto.

After all the milk has been added, stir in the vanilla and add the cream, again in 1/2 cup increments. Begin tasting the rice to gauge its texture. You'll want it to be al dente—tender, but with a little crunch. When it's at the right stage and all the liquid has been absorbed (you'll want it to be a little drier than the traditional risotto), take the pan off the heat and stir in the Kahlua and nutmeg.

Spread the risotto onto a shallow plate to cool. When it's cool enough to handle, cover with plastic wrap—to prevent a skin from forming—and refrigerate until fully chilled and firm. This can be done overnight.

When the risotto is chilled, start heating up the oil. Put at least 3 inches of oil in a heavy medium saucepan and heat to 350 degrees F. Whisk egg in a small bowl and pour panko in a shallow layer on a plate.

To create the arancini, moisten your hands and roll a heaping tablespoon of the cooled risotto into a ball. Dredge it in the egg mixture first, then coat with bread crumbs. Repeat with the rest of the risotto. There should be enough to make 16-18 balls.

To make the chocolate dipping sauce, heat the heavy cream in a small saucepan till it simmers, but not boiling. Add kahlua and pour over the chopped chocolate in a heatproof bowl. Wait a few minutes for chocolate to melt before stirring to mix.

By then, the oil should have reached the right temperature. Fry the arancini in small batches until golden brown, about 4 minutes. Drain on paper towels and serve immediately with the chocolate sauce. Enjoy!

Big thanks to Allen for donating a bottle of Kahlua Hazelnut, Pauline for graciously offering her kitchen and Hann (as well as Allen & Pauline) for being my helpers and tasters. Allen, I'm taking you with me to NY if I win, it's a promise!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Project 02: If Life Gives You Bad Bread, Make Bread Pudding

I blame it on Martha. As I was making one of  my weekly rounds at the neighborhood library and flipped open one of Martha Stewart Living magazine, my jaw dropped when I saw her recipe for a Apple-Honey Challah bread. It was all due to that gorgeous glossy photo. Check out the photo and recipe here.

All my past memories of failed bread-making attempts went out the window, and believe me, there were many. Granted, I was in elementary school and first started cooking, but they were such failures (think inedible bricks disguised as dinner rolls) that I swore I would never attempt to make bread again. That is, until I saw that perfect photo on the last page of Martha's magazine...

So, I dutifully gathered all the listed ingredients (sans apple since I forgot) and took it slowly step-by-step. It was an intense experience, totaling over five hours of kneading, proofing, stressing and baking.

The end result was a bit disappointing. The loaf looked well enough on the outside, but the inside showed an uneven crumb and flatten air bubbles (according to bakers, that means I've used old yeast). Thankfully, it tasted much better than it looked—with strong tones of honey and wheat.

So, what to do with a dense loaf of bread? Let it sit out for a day to get stale... then make bread pudding! I had some ripe bananas and chocolate chips on hand, so I altered a basic bread pudding recipe and created the Chunky Monkey Bread Pudding.

Chunky Monkey Bread Pudding
Serves 8 (or 6 hungry monkeys)
1. Take a half loaf of stale bread, cube it into 1-inch pieces and toast briefly in an 350 degree oven for about 8 mins.
2. Mix 2 eggs with 1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste (or extract) with 1/4 tb salt, 1/2 cup sugar and 2 1/2 cup whole milk.
3. Place toasted bread cubes in a casserole dish, sprinkle 2 sliced bananas on top and scatter a handful of chocolate chips (or more if desired).
4. Pour the custard mixture over, sprinkle sugar on top and bake for 50 minutes in an 350 degree oven till golden brown.
5. Enjoy!

It was warm, gooey, and had just the right amount of sweetness. I organized a small group of Sweet Tooths to help me polish it off with a movie—it was a good night.

Lessons learned from this? Bread pudding is a savior and never again will I scoff at $5 loaves of bread. Good bread is well worth its price.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

"Everything in Paris Looks like Pastries"

Stumbled upon this little morsel this morning and it made my day. Susan Hochbaum goes on a photography shoot to capture pastry forms in the city of Paris. Oh la la!

Project 01: Can Shortbreads Be Flavorful?

Deprived of the ubiquitous grocery store cookies growing up in Hong Kong, I've not the pleasure in participating in the Oreos-and-milk ritual or tried the Keelber elves' many baked delights. The closest I got to cookies were Walkers Shortbread that my mom seemed to favor. As she looks for value in all her purchases, maybe the shortbread looked to be a good buy because it's so incredibly dense, as if the Walker family jammed butter and flour in a compacting machine to produce those bullion bars.

To me, they were decent, but I always wanted them to have some pizazz, some extra flavor other than plain ol' butter.

After many years, inspiration finally stuck when I read a back issue of Bon Appetit and fell upon Molly Wizenberg's Coffee Crunch Bars. A quick scan of her recipe revealed basic shortbread instructions with the addition of coffee, almond and almonds as flavoring agents. Simple, yet genius.

I tore out the recipe (don't worry, it was my copy) immediately and altered the recipe to my taste preference du jour, which is salted caramel.

First, I substituted bumped up the salt content with sea salt. Then, instead of almond extract, I added vanilla beans for a vanilla caramel taste. Lastly, I subbed out almonds for walnuts. Even though I'm not a cookie dough person, I dipped my finger in the bowl quite a few times...

Note: I baked the shortbread 10 minutes less than the recipe dictated since it was browning quickly. It seems others experience the same situation.

The end result was a happy success. The shortbread was delicate because of the thickness of the cookies, yet rich because of the ingreditents. The recipe makes 4 dozen squares, so I used the bulk of it for my friend's birthday present and split the rest with my fellow sugar junkies.

Give the recipe a try and make your own alterations!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

What is Project Sweet Tooth?

The mission is simple. My goal is to be in Paris for 2 weeks by next Fall, enjoying a green tea macaron from Patisserie Sadaharu Aoki, stare wordlessly like a kid in front of Laduree's pastry cases, and eat my way through the City of Lights.

Getting there though is a tad more complicated, and that is where I'll be using Project Sweet Tooth. It's where I'll document my journey getting to Paris, making my way around, as well as all the baking and eating throughout it all.

So, first order of business, what road blocks stand in the way of me and the Land of Croissants & Champagne?

1. The first obvious obstacle is funding. Taking a rough estimate of the flight fees, housing costs, and (of course) the food budget, the trip will set me back around 4-5k. Without a source of constant income, this is where I'd need to get creative and summon the wise entrepreneurial spirits.

2. The second (and more enjoyable) obstacle is figuring out the itinerary. So far, I've got Patisserie Sadaharu Aoki, Laduree, Fachon, the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower. Simply not enough to fill two weeks—or two days even. No worries though, as I am well armed with a copy of "Gourmet Shops of Paris: An Epicurean Tour," written by Pierre Rival and Christian Sarramon.

3. Housing: where am I going to stay? In my fantasy, I would be living it up like Marie Antoinette (pre-beheading) by staying in a palace not unlike the Versailles. Realistically though, I'll be looking into a mixture of options for different cultural experience. Bed & Breakfasts is a must have, as well as a night in a nice hotel, but strangely enough, I'd like to stay at a nunnery. And, I'm looking into couch surfing—a concept that sounds both sketch and awesome at the same time.

4. Language. Need to make a trip to the library stat.

5. Last, but not least, training, because two weeks of non-stop eating is essentially a gastronomic marathon. Athletes train for months to prepare for the triathlon, working out daily and learning all there is to know about the race. I too, will train by baking and learning about a different dessert each week with my arsenal of cook books. So, when the time comes, I will be able to discern between the boring from the fabulous in order to make the right ordering decision. Not to mention it'll help me gain a greater appreciation by knowing first-hand how difficult it is to create the perfect tarte tartin,  crepes, creme caramel, etc.

Now, I have no intention of getting diabetes by stuffing myself with rich desserts weekly, so this is what I propose. Since most recipes serve 6-8, I'll be recruiting a team of "sweet-tooths" to taste, rate and consume the extra portions. In exchange, they'll help me gather ingredients for my next project—in essence, continuing the circle. So, if you have a passion for desserts, leave a comment or contact me and we'll make magic happen!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

An Unconventional Love Story

I must confess, I am in love with desserts.

This love struck me early in life—when my parents presented me with my first red bean roll. If you've never had one, it's a soft brioche bun, glazed with egg yolk to a mirror-like sheen and marked with sesame seeds like freckles. Once you bite in, you are rewarded by the sweetened maroon paste made of Azuki beans. When it's done right, nothing tops it for me—not even chocolate.

Once I tasted this wondrous baked confection, there was no turning back. I was hooked. I started neglecting my usual haunts of toy shops in favor of bakeries. Yes, I was that peculiar kid that stood in front of baked good cases  staring in awe. Too afraid to touch the clear glass, but couldn't stay away. To me, the contents inside the cases were infinitely more valuable and delicious than any jewel. Believe me, I tried eating one and it was no good.

Even more enchanting though was watching the baker in the back transform what I originally thought was play-doh into artfully shaped tarts, breads, and cakes. Who cares about Santa Claus and his yearly feat of supplying the children of the world with toys when bakers supply people, both young and old, with little edible works of art daily?

It was a traumatic day when I learned bakers do not magically create bread out of play-doh, but with more conventional ingredients. But, after the initial shock subsided, I wanted to learn more and be closer to the object of my affection. This was easy enough when I lived in Hong Kong, where a bakery resides on every street corner. It was another story however when I immigrated to Los Angeles. My next place of resident was a sleepy suburban town that seemed to switch off every night at 6p. If that wasn't bad enough, its sole "bakery" was the donut section in the local Albertsons. Que horror! Where am I to get my red bean rolls, mont blancs, fruit tarts and swan-shaped profiteroles?

I had to make due. I learned to love the other parts of a meal and my new friends introduced me to various snack foods, most notably Doritos and Hot Cheetos. Yet, my heart still yearned for the sweet stuff.

And so began the monthly trips to Little Tokyo to satisfy my cravings. I also signed up for French in high school, because I found out France was the birthplace of my love. When I was in college, I recruited my friends to accompany me all over LA to visit bakeries of all sorts.

But it was not enough, I wanted, nay, needed to go to France to experience "sucre plasir." After graduating from USC, I had plenty of time for such a trip, but alas, no funds. I did the next best thing and wrote to Boule, the best patisserie in town, for a position.

The catch was that I had no formal culinary education—I majored in fine arts and minored in business. Even so, I wrote in my cover letter I trained with the greats (namely Martha Stewart and Jacque Pepin) by watching them on TV and practicing their techniques afterwards. To seal the deal, I sent them my design portfolio.

Looking back, it was a wonder they replied back, but as luck would have it, their pastry chef extraordinaire, Ramon Perez, called  me in for an interview. He told me he enjoyed my cover letter and was impressed by my paintings, but I was not a good fit for Boule. Just as my heart broke, he asked if I would like to work pastries in Sona (Boule's sister restaurant) instead.

I didn't know it at the time, but this was big, epic even. Holder of a Michelin star and one of the leaders in Nouveau French cuisine, Sona was the boot camp for budding chefs. I learned about the existence of tasting menus, of amuse bouche, of mignardises, and most of all, the endless possibilities for desserts. Chef Ramon incorporated meats, vegetables and even squid ink to push the boundaries and change my perception on what constitutes as a dessert.

Long story short (we'll save the details for another time), as much fun as I've had during my summer at Sona—blowtorching cakes, learning the finer points to a perfect macaron—I realized I am not cut out for life as a cook, but I know I am destined to be connected to the field. This led me to design for Pizzeria Ortica and a year of work for Shook Kelley, a architectural and strategic firm specializing in retail and consumer brands.

As much as I wish I could end the story here by saying, "and I lived happily ever after," unfortunately, the economy happened. After a year of constant routine, I found myself newly unemployed and lost. It is quite unsettling to find myself with an abundance of time and no direction.

To cope, I consulted Psychology Today and came across an inspiring article on facing failures and setbacks in life. It got me to reexamine my goals and although I can't foresee what the future holds for me, one thing is for sure: I am going to visit Paris, the culinary capital of the world, next year, no ifs or buts.

This is where Project Sweet Tooth comes in. From raising the capital needed to researching my itinerary, I'll be documenting every step I take to accomplish this dream of mine. In addition, as I continue to further refine my baking skills, I'll be sharing cooking tips, recipes and trivial tidbits. In short, this is an insider's look in the life of an extreme dessert enthusiast.

I hope you join me in this journey. Merci!

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