Daring Bakers – Piece Montée

When Mishi came over for dinner a few weeks back she commented on the fact that I’ve really taken to baking – something I’ve always professed a mild aversion to due to so many failures at it when I was younger.  I made all sorts of weird, wacky and wonderful but utterly inedible ‘cakes’ as a kid and I also had a bad habit of not using measures or doing substitutes which didn’t work.  Now that I’m a bit older, and have a bit more patience, I find it easier to stick to recipes and I have a teeny bit more experience with ingredients – so my substitutions usually work out a lot better if I do make them (though not always).

Thus when I signed up for Daring Cooks, after a few days of uhming and ahhing, I also signed up for Daring Bakers which, as you can imagine, is along similar lines.  The last few months they’d been making things like Tiramasu, Gingerbread Houses and Orange Tian.  All were complex and a good way more adventurous than anything I’d ever made but I figured they weren’t too scary for a beginner.

So I waited, sort-of patiently, for this months challenge recipe to roll around.  Then I gawped.  Then I thought  ‘aw crap’.   Then I tried it anyway.  If you haven’t guessed from the title, the recipe for this month was Piece Montée or Croquembouche.  If you’ve no idea what that is, go have a look at google image search for a start.   It’s choux pastry puffs, filled with flavoured crème pâtissière (egg-custard-like creamy filling), stacked high and held together with either chocolate or caramel and decorated with shiny, fancy nice looking stuff.  All in all, it looks amazing as a dish.

But I had to cook it?  Eep.

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.

I will say, now, that in the end this actually felt easier than the cooking challenge for this month did to me!  The recipe and directions were very well written and made it easy enough for a beginner like me to actually make this dish.  Now, I’ve never even made my own pastry before, so that’s quite something!

The challenges all have a degree of freedom and a degree of ‘control’  – that is, something which everyone has to attempt to do the same.  In this case, the recipe for the pastry was to be used exactly, but we were free to make our own fillings and choose what to stick it together and decorate it with.  I had a quick shufti through my fridge and decided I’d try to do something with the blueberries I had.  What goes well with blueberries?  Citrus! (which, oddly enough, they love as an amendment to soil they grow in).  So, blueberries and lemon zest – what about the crème? At first I figured I’d just go with the plain vanilla, then toyed with the idea of the coffee recipe which was posted, but I thought it’d compete with the fruit too much.  After a while, an idea came to me – why not tea?  And, since I had it, Lady Grey – which is a nice, soft tasting tea with a touch of citrus. Sorted!

I actually made the puffs the evening before I was going to make the whole thing, knowing it’d be a footer and a long slog to get everything done at once.  It also meant that if I messed it up, I could try again, hehe.  It was the first time in many, many years that I’ve used a proper piping bag (as opposed to a wrapped up piece of greaseproof) and it was so much fun.  I had gotten it for this challenge and I’m now looking for more excuses to use it ;)

Choux pastry is very odd to make – and requires a wee bit of precision, but not, overall, that difficult if you follow the instructions.   I halved the recipe given, as there were only going to be two of us to eat it, and it still ended up being so much that Andy took some to work and I had a few more puffs for lunch the day after!  The sugar, being modelled above by Andy’s hand, was actually the hardest part for me.   I burned the first lot and had to re-do it and I didn’t manage the nice spun-sugar I wanted to try but it did taste really good with the fruit, so I’m glad I went with that rather than chocolate.

Although mine was not nearly as spectacular as some of the other bakers, I am proud of my creation.  I baked, I got to use my creative side in both flavour choice and how it looked and, as a bonus, it actually tasted really good!

(I’ll post a link to the daring recipe and directions when I get back from holiday – this is set up to post automatically, but I can’t link to the recipe post as it wasn’t up before I left, being as the challenge had still not been made public.)

Here’s the link to the recipe and instructions!

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Leek & Goat’s Cheese Parcels with Asparagus

This was a super-simple recipe from BBC GoodFood.  I usually assume that anything with pastry is going to take time and be fiddly to do – but this bucked that trend completely. Pre-made puff pastry, rolled out, cut into squares, stuff the filling into it after softening it, bung in the oven, eat 25 minutes later.  It was so simple, in fact, that I had time to rustle up a béchamel/parsley sauce to go with the fresh asparagus whilst I waited without feeling at all rushed.

Mild, melty, gooey goat’s cheese, soft, sweet leeks and light, crunchy pastry.  YUM.  Definitely a recipe I’d recommend trying.

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My mild terror about baking reared its ugly head last week when I attempted to make carrot cake.  When I realised I had no carrots, I figured I’d use sweet potato and it all went downhill from there.  Although I seem to be doing fine when following a recipe exactly, I still cannot do large substitutions right, and that annoys me, as I like to experiment a bit ;)

Anyways, suffice to say that when I turned the ‘carrot’ cake out of its tin only half of it came out…  The other half went back in for further baking and, in the end, I was left with a mass of crumby cake bits.  Tasty-ish crumbly cake bits, but nothing much to look at.  What to do with a big pile of crumbled cake mix?  Cake Pops, of course!  Bakerella’s foody-internet-wide famous cake pops blend cake, cream cheese icing and various coatings to make really cute cakes-onna-stick.  I didn’t have any sticks though, so they’d just have to be cake balls.  Still, I was happier at the idea of getting something nice looking out of the mess I’d made.

So this:

Became these:

And then these:

Sweet potato actually makes a nice substitute from carrot but for some reason, there just seemed to be wayyyy too much oil in the recipe with them in it.  I also added some fresh ginger and used more powdered spices than I would have for carrot cake as sweet potato takes flavouring really well.  The cake balls were pretty nice – but the ones I stuck in the freezer were really divine – the oil made stopped them from entirely freezing and have a mouth-feel similar to ice cream cookie dough!

On a completely different, but related note – my cream cheese icing came out well!  Last time I made it, I had some problems (notably being silly by using low-fat cream cheese which turned to water…)  It’s nice to know I can actually make it since I love cream cheese icing.

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Stacked Green Chilli & Grilled Chicken Enchiladas

A while back, when I was going through some cooking blogs, I came across the Daring Kitchen.  The premise of the group is for one (or two) hosts per month to pick a recipe – something a little challenging – and for the people within the group to do that recipe and all post about it on their blogs.  It sounded like a great idea to me as I’ve been trying to up my game in the kitchen and, honestly, it’s a little more fun to cook things knowing you can, even vicariously, share it with others.   What I didn’t expect was the level to which it also allowed me access to a bunch of superb cooks whose ideas on methods of cooking and variations on the theme stimulated my own imagination!

As per the rules:

Our hosts this month, Barbara of Barbara Bakes and Bunnee of Anna+Food have chosen a delicious Stacked Green Chile & Grilled Chicken Enchilada recipe in celebration of Cinco de Mayo! The recipe, featuring a homemade enchilada sauce was found on www.finecooking.com and written by Robb Walsh.

The recipe and directions can also be found here.

I’ve sort-of made enchiladas before.  You know… some tortilla wraps, throw some ‘seasoning’ in some meat, wrap them all up and slather in cheese before sticking them in the oven?  Tasty, fine, but not very exciting.  Sort of like a dry lasagne.  The recipe for these enchiladas was something completely different.  The same elements were all still there – meat, sauce, wrap, & cheese but the taste was explosive.

The sauce in itself is pretty simple – it just takes time and a bit of footering to prepare.  Oh, and I’ll totally own up to forgetting to put on gloves before starting to strip the chillies – I’ve done roasted / skinned bell peppers before and went into auto-pilot on taking the skins off / seeds out until I felt tingling in my fingers.  Whoops!  A quick wash in a strong baking soda solution fixed that, thankfully, and I continued with gloves on.

I had to substitute ‘green chillies’ and some green bell peppers in where there should have been Anaheim chillis and ended up making flour tortillas when my corn ones didn’t work.  I also used ‘Mexicano’ cheddar – the kind Tesco makes where they just pile in a bunch of peppers.  Everything else was done as per the instructions.

My version doesn’t look like much, but it tasted pretty good (with a glass of milk on hand) and I’d definitely try it again with milder chillies.  I also need to try my hand at tortillas again – I’ve tried roti canai, naan, chapatis and tortilla pancakes and only the chapati’s came out like they should – I love most flat breads, though, so I need to work out where I’m going wrong with them :)

If anyone is looking for Mexican ingredients in the central / eastern areas of Scotland, you wouldn’t go far wrong checking out Lupe Pintos.   It’s a teeny little shop, but stocks quite a few ingredients that are hard to get elsewhere.  I got my (canned) tomatillos there.

Having found out about tomatillos through this challenge, I’ve also ended up with two wee pots on my windowsill this week with, hopefully, my own home-grown crop of tomatillos.  I suspect the weather here might be a bit chilly for them to fruit, even in the ‘greenhouse’, but I can hope, right?

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Gardening Season is Hotting Up

Just about everything in the garden seems to be shooting up in size and flourishing. I ate my first radish, though only because I accidentally pulled it out a bit early!  Our windows, too, are filling up with various heat-loving seedlings and plants.

The potato plants are getting big – I’ve had to earth them up twice already – though I had a bit of a scare with some wilted leaves.  I thought they might be blighted, but fortunately it looks as though it might just have been that the unseasonal heat – or maybe a mineral deficiency.

I planted a lot of things last week – as the plantfeed in the side bar will attest – hostas, tomatillos, foxgloves, new cultivars of radish and beans, a different salad mix, and some buddleja has gone into the fridge for cold stratification.  I put cauliflower, some of the mint, some more onions and a couple of the bigger alpine strawberries out into the garden, too. The beans and salad mix are seeds I got from this years BBC Dig In campaign.  I didn’t take part in last years as I didn’t have a garden, then, but I’m glad I can have a go this year.  I think it’s a great idea, with so many people getting the gardening bug but not knowing where to start =)

When we were at Homebase for some DIY supplies I grabbed some more strawberries.  Come on, who can say no to a tray for 99p?  It’s silly, really, given the sheer number of strawberries I already have but it means I won’t feel so guilty about letting a few plants flower and fruit this year whilst letting others establish themselves better before fruiting.  I still have to figure out where I’ll put them, though…

Another plant which seems to be doing well is the conglomerate fruit bushes up the back of the garden.  Unfortunately, the one plant we really wanted to grow, the raspberry, never came to anything – the buds just dried up and fell off.  The gooseberries and blackcurrants seem to be doing fine, though – they’ve pretty much exploded with leafyness.

The one garden task I keep putting off has been mowing.  I wanted to give the grass a chance to bounce back after the harsh weather and let it gain a little ground on the moss.  I love moss lawns, but I like the deeper green of grass, so I’m going to try to get them to play together.  The other reason is that, in amongst all of the grass, there seem to be a tonne of bulbs!  Since this is our first spring / summer here, I didn’t know any of these plants even existed so it’s been a pleasant surprise.  I’m not sure exactly what they are, but they look like something in the hyacinth / bluebell family.

This bit of ground, next to our front door, is going to be my project for next year, and where I hope to put some of the foxgloves and hostas.  It’s in shade pretty much all day, and at the base of a tree as well as having random bits of privet  at the sides- so dry at the edges as well as shady.  Talk about a tough spot for plants!  It’s an eyesore to me, though, and I want to see if I can make something of it.  Wondering if a shade-loving clematis would like to crawl over that eyesore of a privet.  Don’t get me wrong – I actually like privet, though a lot of people seem to see it as unfashionable, but it’s not really in  the right place, and it’s been cut into a weird shape.  Hmm, maybe I can topiary-ize it ;)!

With all this gardening going on, I think I’d forgotten to mention I’ve been tracking it all on Folia.  It’s a really cool site and allows me to note which plants I’ve put where, when I’ve sown, transplanted, harvested, etc. and is choc full of helpful people to go to for advice!

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Banana Bread Take 3

Attempt number three at banana bread met with mixed success – this time I actually went for a full-on eggs and butter version, plain white flour with no added extras.  I was almost disappointed at how little difference it made!  It certainly had a little finer crumb, but that just made it feel a bit stodgy and it didn’t taste much sweeter, butterier or richer despite the traditional ingredients.  It’s also still turning out a lot darker than my Gran’s would – I’m beginning to wonder if she made a sponge version, omitting the eggs, as whilst dense and buttery, it was also much lighter in both mouth-feel and colour.  I really need to e-mail Mum and ask…  I may just be remembering things over-fondly or confusing it with another favourite.

The odd light brown marks on top are actually sugar I dropped onto the cake before baking in a criss-cross pattern.  It looked really nice from above, but you’ll have to trust me on that ;)

Still, my quest for a great banana bread will have to continue after I’ve gotten over being sick of the taste of banana.  I’m surprised I haven’t turned yellow, yet.

I have to admit that I didn’t really expect my potted pea plant, which I grew on the living room window, to flower and set fruit but apparently it’s a tenacious little thing.  I had my first peas of the season this week – something I wasn’t expecting for another few months – and they were delicious.  I had almost forgotten the taste of fresh-from-the-pod peas =)

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