Friday, May 27, 2011

Daring to do it: Marquise on Meringue

(Sorry this post won't be as "well written" as usual... Time grew short, and Little Girl's birthday took precedence over the writing process...)

The May 2011 Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Emma of CookCraftGrow and Jenny of Purple House Dirt. They chose to challenge everyone to make a Chocolate Marquise. The inspiration for this recipe comes from a dessert they prepared at a restaurant in Seattle.

This was an intimidating challenge. Just looking at the recipe I was concerned... So many steps! So much time! So DAIRY!!! I know, there was a vegan alternative presented, but it just didn't seem like it would turn out "right" (at least not the way I wanted it to...). After putting it off for a long time, claiming to be looking for a time when there would be more people to eat it, Ifinally got down to business. I did spread the process out over a couple of days, which was actually really helpful.

The marquise itself consists of the chocolate base and the "actual" marquise. Neither one was particulartly hard, per se, just somewhat labor intensive. This dish is all about the texture being right, so I tried very hard to make sure that my cream whipped up well and the chocolate was smooth. In order to keep portions controlled, I chose to make my marquise (well, part of it anyway...!) in my brownie bites pan. The little squares would be easier to unmold, and would have the benefit of being smaller than I would likely cut portions for myself!
The meringue was a great recipe, unlike any I have used before. I had never disolved the sugar in the whites over heat before. It was an interesting way to make a smoother meringue, and I might have to play with that again! (It was, though, impossible to photograph, as one hand held the bowl and the other was mixing the sugar in the whites...!)

I chose to forego the nuts and caramel sauce reccomended by the hosts. As delicious as they sound (and I really do hope I find a chance to make them another time!), I didn't have it in me... The berry sauce I made was a combination of blackberries, blueberries, strawberries and raspberries cooked with the juice of one orange, a bit of water, a sprinkling of sugar, a little cinnamon and a splash of vanilla. The sugared berries were exactly that - the same variety of berries, tossed with some sugar for shine.

This really was an amazing dessert. The chocolate marquise had an amazingly smooth, rich texture, and the meringue's sweetness and crunch (because I made cookies) were a great compliment to each other. I also found the tartness of the berries to be a great accompaniment, so I was pleased with the choice I had made...!

Thank you, Emma and Jenny, for introducing us to this amazing, decadent, beautiful and delicious dish! This was like going to pastry school, except without the pressure, cost and competition!!

I highly recommend that you look here to see the wonderful creations created my my fellow Daring Bakers!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Daring to do it: Gumbo

Our May hostess, Denise, of There’s a Newf in My Soup!, challenged The Daring Cooks to make Gumbo! She provided us with all the recipes we’d need, from creole spices, homemade stock, and Louisiana white rice, to Drew’s Chicken & Smoked Sausage Gumbo and Seafood Gumbo from My New Orleans: The Cookbook, by John Besh.

Wow... Gumbo... This is a dish I never thought I would make. For one thing, it never occurred to me that there would be a vegetarian alternative for it. (Which, I know, is silly, as there is pretty much a veggie alternative for everything!). Another hindrance was that I have never had okra, and I never really thought I would have it. I had been warned of the sliminess factor enough times to feel that it was not something in which I would be interested... But here was the May challenge, and gumbo it was - okra and all. After thinking it over for a while, and seeing the interesting combinations people were coming up with, I finally decided that I would dive right in. Except for one little problem... This is a BIG recipe. It makes a lot of gumbo. Who was going to eat all of it? And this is how it came down to the wire, the last day of the challenge month, and I just made it. With enough left over to have for at least two more dinners for us, and a large container going home with a friend!

In case you don't know, gumbo is a stew which has roots in many different cultures - from Africa to Native America. There seem to be certain elements which are needed in order to make a real gumbo. (Meat or seafood, I think would normally be included as "needed," but there are others!) First is the roux. I have made "normal" roux before - butter (well, margarine) and flour cooked to thicken a white sauce. Roux for gumbo is different. This is a dark roux combining fat and flour and cooking them together for a long time until it develops a beautiful brown color and a rich flavor base for the gumbo.

The second important element for gumbo is the "Holy Trinity." No, this challenge did not make me change religious beliefs. The trinity here is the three core vegetables of the dish. I am used to the trinity being the traditional mirepoix - onions, celery and carrot. The Creole/Louisiana trinity, though, is slightly different: onion, celery and green pepper.
The third piece of the gumbo is the okra. Okra is used as both a flavor component and a thickener for the gumbo. As far as I can tell, okra is not NECESSARY for gumbo, but it is traditional, and it adds a certain quality which makes gumbo stand out. Another thickener usually used in gumbo is file (pronounced fee-lay) powder. This is an ingredient I had never heard of, and knew I would not use again, even if I make gumbo again (which I think I will!). So I omitted it.
Because I was going to be making a vegetarian gumbo, I felt pretty strongly that I should make my own vegetable stock. Without the added flavors of meat or seafood, I felt it was important to take the extra step, and also to make sure I was adding flavor wherever I could! I then chose to use as many vegetables as I could! To make up for the quantity of "stuff" in the stew which would normally be chicken, sausage or shellfish, I upped the veggie quotient, and loved it! In addition to the trinity vegetables and okra I used carrot, parsnip, zucchini, tomato and garlic. I think that chopping the vegetables was the most labor intensive part of this process! I am glad I did it the night before so it would all be ready and waiting for me! (The term mise en place really took on a new importance with this dish!) I also wanted to be sure to add some sort of protein element to my gumbo, so I used lentils and texturized vegetable protein.

Veggies ready, it was time to start cooking. First and foremost was the roux. One cup of vegetable oil was heated in my biggest pot (which, I must say, is not big enough!), then one cup of all purpose flour is added. Then whisk. And whisk. And whisk some more. Here are a few pictures of the progress from light to dark, which really was a magical transformation!

When the roux was as dark as I could get it I added my diced onions. The smell was amazing-- rich, deep, almost like wine, but in a good way! (Don't forget, I don't drink wine, don't like wine, so this was a surprising smell for me to like so much!) One by one I added in the other vegetables, giving each a good toss in the roux for coating and flavor. I also added my own seasonings, as I don't have Creole spices, nor do I even have all of the components to make my own. Each addition created a new smell sensation which was amazingly intoxicating. Apparently it could be smelled a couple of houses away, too! Last to go in were the okra and the vegetable stock, then it was time to let everything simmer away.

It was recommended to us Daring Cooks to make Louisiana rice to accompany our gumbo. I wasn't up for that challenge, so I made a Basmatti rice blend that I had in the pantry which included some vegetable flavorings of its own. Once dinner time arrived we were all ready to dig in! (Even Little Girl, who for the previous ten minutes had been walking around saying "I like gumbo!" Despite the fact that she had never had it... So cute!)
I have to say, the gumbo was absolutely worth the effort! The roux added a deeper flavor than I am used to in a soup, and the mix of vegetables was delicious! The okra did not "dissolve" the way I had thought it might, but the sliminess factor was not what I had feared - it added texture to the stew and was soft and easy to chew. With the lentils, TVP and rice this was a hearty, warming and filling dinner! The one place where I did not do as well as I would have liked was with the seasonings. I was hesitant to go too strong, not wanting Little Girl to get upset, but I think I went a bit too light. Next time I will be a bit more aggressive. We did balance this somewhat with the nontraditional (I assume) addition of cheese to our individual bowls, but I think more seasonings would go well. All of us really enjoyed the gumbo, even going back for seconds despite feeling somewhat full from firsts...!

Thank you so much, Denise, for challenging us to make this! It was a lot of fun to work with you this month. Your support and enthusiasm were helpful and appreciated!

Take a look here to see what my fellow Daring Cooks created. It really is a treat for the eyes!!