Wednesday, December 21, 2011 synch with the elements

I felt better after my croissant catastrophe once I had my dose of spaghetti and parmesan with olive oil (my ultimate comfort food) and a viewing of Pride & Prejudice. I was ready to get over it and face the tropical elements once again. This time, I blasted my air conditioning, armed myself with valor and positivism, and set out to make a classic French apple tart. A tarte aux pommes.

A tarte aux pommes consists of a sweet pastry dough crust, apple filling, and apple slices for decoration. I'll cut to the chase. It was a success! Even though this recipe involves butter, and mixing it at just the right temperature and in just the right way, the elements seemed to cut me some slack, and bingo! This was the result:
yesterday's french apple tart
Here's the recipe. Try it for your Christmas meal, and let me know how it goes.

French apple tart (adapted from a Le Cordon Bleu Paris recipe)

Sweet short pastry
200g flour
100g butter (cold)
4g salt
20g sugar
1 tsp water
1 egg

Apple filling
3 apples (Golden Delicious work best)
30g butter
30g sugar
30ml water

3 apples (Golden Delicious) for decoration/top of tart 
brown sugar

Preheat your oven to 180 degrees celsius (350 degrees fahrenheit). Prepare a baking sheet covered with parchment paper, and butter a circular tart mold.

In a bowl, add flour, salt, butter (cold), water, egg, vanilla, and sugar. Make the movement with your fingers as if you were counting bills to mix the ingredients together. Once mixed, top your workspace with a bit of flour, dump the mixture on the surface, and use the heal of your hand to press and push the dough in order to mix the ingredients further. Be careful not to mix too much, or else the butter will start to ooze. If you feel that your dough is too warm, put it in the fridge for a few minutes before rolling out the dough.

Working quickly, use a rolling pin to roll out the dough until it is about 3mm thick. Make sure your dough is at least 1-2 cm larger than the circumference of the tart mold. Then use your rolling pin to place your flattened dough on it, and carefully roll it onto the tart mold. With your thumb and index finger, press the rim of the tart mold to ensure that the dough is properly attached to the mold. Leave a bit of dough on top of the tart mold, and use your rolling pin to roll over the lined tart mold to trim the excess dough. Place the lined tart mold into the fridge (or freezer if you're in the tropics)!

You'll need at least 2 1/2 - 3 apples for the tart filling. Roughly chop these apples and saute them in a pan with butter, sugar, water, vanilla, and cinnamon. Saute until golden brown. 

Place your filling into the tart base, creating a mound in the center. 

Slice your decoration apples in moon shapes and create a design to top your tart. The photo above shows a circular pattern, but placing the apple slices in diagonal lines also works well.

Top the tart with bits of butter and brown sugar, and place in the oven for 35 minutes or until golden brown.

May the elements work with you on this one!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Battling the elements...and losing

This is my sad report about how I failed making croissants and pain au chocolat yesterday. I had to find ways to satiate a craving...and they didn't end well.

On Saturday, after writing about my early-morning craving for pain au chocolat, we headed to a new pastry shop that apparently makes good pain au chocolat. We arrived at 8:10am to find that the pastry cooks were just getting to work. When we asked about the pain au chocolat, they said we could have some that had been made at 4pm on Friday, and that the fresh Saturday morning batch would be ready around 10am. Hmm. 

I know I've been spoiled by the fact that you can get fresh croissant and pain au chocolat at nearly every corner in Paris at all hours of the day. Even though I understand this is not the case everywhere in the world, I can't help thinking...stale pain au chocolat for sale? 10am? Really? Since when do pastry cooks begin work at 8am? 4am is more like it, isn't it?

To be honest, I'm not sure if the demand is there. We were the only patrons at the pastry shop, so I don't know if it's worth it for this shop to make fresh pastries early in the morning because perhaps Trinidadians aren't interested in pain au chocolat that early on a Saturday. 

Could it be that by making French macaroons and craving pain au chocolat I'm trying to impose something new on a Caribbean island that may not be interested? My French macaroons sold well, but I had to lower the original price since people aren't familiar with them, and I had to explain what made them special. Some people are very excited about my macaroons, and others probably couldn't care less and would prefer the usual run-of-the-mill stale cupcakes.

Well, my kitchen sure thought I was imposing something new. And it wouldn't budge. It was a sweltering 90+ degrees in there yesterday morning as I embarked on my pain au chocolat-making effort. This was an adequate environment for my yeast dough, and it rose beautifully in the warm humidity. 

When I began rolling out the dough with the butter inside it, however, things started to get ugly. The best butter to use is dry butter, which contains less water content. I couldn't find dry butter in Trinidad, so normal butter had to do. It was a mess. Butter was oozing out of the dough, the dough didn't have it's necessary elasticity, and I was getting frustrated. I turned and rolled the dough twice (you must do this five times in order to achieve flaky croissants), and threw it into the freezer to try to control the oozing. Once out of the freezer, I turned and rolled again, and even though I did my best, this was not working. 

I had to keep moving because my brunch guests had arrived and I needed to put those babies in the oven, no matter what. I rolled the croissants and pain au chocolat into their shapes, let them rise a little more, brushed them with egg wash, and into the oven they went. 

A few minutes later, my husband came in asking if something was burning. As I opened the oven door, a giant cloud of smoke came out. A revolting smell of burnt butter filled the air of my kitchen, and I saw my hopes and dreams of eating nice pain au chocolat disappear into the sweltering air of my Caribbean kitchen.

Gooey, slimy, yucky. That was the result. I felt awful because I wanted to impress my friends. I let myself down, and all I wanted to do was roll up into a little ball and do what makes me feel better - make pasta and watch Pride and Prejudice (with Colin Firth, of course). Honk if you're a fan.

I was not my own fan yesterday. I was sad, disappointed in myself, and frustrated by the fact that I think I want to import France into an hot and humid environment that seems to be pushing culinary change away. My macaroons were successful, but hated the humidity after I made them, so it was a battle to keep them in proper shape to sell them. 

This story does have a happy ending, however. I'm going to practice, test, and remake, even if it means a battle against the elements. Wish me luck.
the other dishes for the brunch were lovely

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Pain au chocolat nostalgia...and what to do about it

It's crack of dawn this Saturday morning in Port of Spain and the wild parrots and all kinds of other birds are singing and chatting in the bougainvilleas and palm trees outside my window. The hills of the island are an emerald green today because the rain has brought them to their magical splendor. 
blog writing set-up in trinidad
I woke up very early because of a craving that I'll find hard to satiate. Pain au chocolat. On Saturday mornings I used to walk around the corner to Gerard Mulot, a perfect pastry and bread shop in Paris, and buy the most crispy, buttery, flaky, croissants and pain au chocolat in the world. Sigh.

Even though Trinidad is at it's beautiful best this morning, I miss Paris. This nostalgia is particularly strong because it's lead by my stomach! So, what am I going to do about it? Two plans. First, to visit a new pastry shop in Woodbrook that apparently makes decent pain au chocolat. Next step, prepare yeast dough and make my own!

We invited dear friends for brunch tomorrow, so into the kitchen I shall go! I haven't found dry butter in Trinidad, so we'll see what the results will be of a croissant dough without it. Will they be as flaky as when made with dry butter? Will the taste be different? Stay tuned, and I'll let you know.
the croissants and pain au chocolat i made in paris - i'll try to recreate them!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Macaroons for Trinidad

Oh, joy of macaroon joys!

Who ever said that it's impossible to make macaroons in 90 degree, 90 percent humidity? Everyone.

Well, I took it upon myself to prove "everyone" wrong and make macaroons in Trinidad, whose climate is quite different from that of Paris, to say the least.

I returned to our island home on Sunday, eager to return to a life of normalcy after our Parisian adventure. Any other person with some kind of sanity would rest, take time to unpack, and enjoy their home. Not me. I felt the need to get right into the kitchen and start practicing what I've been learning for the past eight months. 

So, I decided to participate in Trinidad's UpMarket, a lovely food market that takes place once in a while where chefs, both professional and amateur, sell their goodies. This was just right for my homecoming project.

A sane person would have probably stayed safe and chosen to make cupcakes or banana bread. But not me (once again). I chose the pastry that is perhaps the most difficult to make. Even for experts who have been making them for a long time. Macaroons. French macaroons.

Macaroons are tricky little guys. They hate humidity and water, are totally susceptible to the weather, and if you mix your batter a little too much, or a little too little, they simply won't budge. They won't poof and make the little "feet" I told you about long ago in a previous entry about my first time making macaroons.

Needless to say, I was extremely nervous because many people have told me that they've tried to make macaroons in Trinidad, and other hot and humid climates, without success. Their batter doesn't rise, the pastry cream oozes uncontrollably, or they simply don't taste good because the ingredients don't work well together because the cosmic universe of the tropics decides to work against them.

Armed with valor and positivism, I turned on the A/C unit in my kitchen to 18 degrees, studied my recipes, laid out my equipment, measured out the ingredients (which I had to visit five places to find), pre-heated my oven, and crossed my fingers. 

I didn't find ground almonds in Port of Spain (anyone who knows where I can get some in this city, I'd appreciate the info), which is the key ingredient for macaroon batter. So, I've been using a coffee grinder to grind almonds. Not a fun task. I whipped my egg whites, folded the batter (this is the trickiest part), and into the oven they went. 

Macaroons and ovens. I won't go into detail, but let's just say it took me three hours to make forty macaroon halves (two halves, with a filling, make one macaroon). The oven dance, as I like to call it, requires opening and closing the oven to let the humidity out, turning the oven on and off at precisely the right times in order for the macaroons to poof, and pray to the cosmic universe of the tropics to help you out. Repeat this five times, and that's what I've been up to since Tuesday.

So, what you've been waiting to find out...they were a success! Lemon, raspberry, and chocolate ganache fillings are ready for tomorrow's sale, and I'm all set. Here's a sneak peek at the macaroons on sale tomorrow:
veronica's macaroons
raspberry macaroon
So if you're in Trinidad, stop by tomorrow at the UpMarket, where I'll be selling these little pieces of almond and meringue heaven.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Pizza and grilled cheese haven

I just returned from visiting my sister, her husband, and baby, in New Haven, Connecticut. My brother-in-law is studying at Yale, and I wanted to check out their stomping grounds. I also wanted to have a bite of famous New Haven pizza.

What I found will surprise you. The pizza was only ok, but the grilled cheese, served by the Cheese Truck by the side of the road on the Yale campus, is quite simply the best grilled cheese I've ever had.
the best grilled cheese sandwich with the yale campus as a backdrop
It's a mixture of provolone, swiss, comte, gruyere, gouda, and sharp cheddar on sourdough bread with cornichon pickles. Absolutely fantastic! You can get add-ons like arugula, applewood bacon, and roasted reds, but the simple cheese on bread is simply the greatest cheese sandwich I've ever had. Together with a to-die-for tomato soup, I was golden as the grilled bread I was feasting on.

Next time you're in New Haven, opt for the cheese truck at the curb. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to try to re-create this little sucker chez moi.

...and tomato soup