Wednesday, February 24, 2010


For the restaurant industry, there is always a lull in business between New Years and the beginning of spring. It’s the time where you see most restaurants tightening their belts, cutting labor costs, and spending less wherever possible. It’s also the time when many restaurants go under. Between the normal expenditures and taxes that are due, even diligent owners can find themselves with the painful realization that their product isn’t selling.

Valentines Day, our favorite Hallmark holiday, is highly anticipated in the restaurant community, because it is a night where one can be certain that the numbers will be good. While it doesn’t do a whole lot in the long run for a restaurants financials, it does provide much-needed morale to employees who are generally bored. Finally, we get to make something different. Finally we get to serve something exciting. At least, that’s the theory…

If there’s something that I’ve discovered in researching for this particular dessert, it’s that people tend to play it safe on v-day. Whether they know it or not, I think people tend to stick to things that they are certain are going to taste good. No matter how good the apples look right now, no matter how extravagant the preparation, it won’t sell. Customers look to the night’s dessert with only one real question: is it chocolate?

Chocolate’s power as an aphrodisiac is debatable at best, but I can’t deny that it satisfies something deep in the soul. Like wine, where you get your chocolate from will greatly affect its flavor. The climate, or terrior as wine aficionados would call it, and how the beans are roasted give an unimaginable range of flavors: from smokey and bitter, or tart and fruity, to sweet with hints of caramel.

I could go on at length about chocolate production, but I think I’ll save that for another post. Books and books have been written on the subject, and there’s still more out there yet to be uncovered. For the moment, I think I will just give you a couple of my thoughts on choosing and eating chocolate:

· Know what you’re buying. Chocolate is expensive. Good chocolate should be [relatively] expensive. Spending money on Hershey’s is like buying non-alcoholic Keystone Light. It’s just not worth it. I’m not saying that you should be unloading your next paycheck for one bar, but go out on a limb and reach for the upper shelf occasionally.

· Don’t count out milk and white chocolate. Many adults claim that milk and white chocolate are for kids who’s taste buds haven’t’ developed yet. Shut up. Anyone who’s had a great milk chocolate can tell you that it is a life-changing experience. A good milk chocolate should let you taste the cocoa bean as much as a dark should.

· Take the percentages that chocolate maker’s proudly display with a grain of salt. They can be very misleading, and are not the mark of what makes chocolate great. All that little number means is how much of that bar is cacao, and how much is not. Two chocolates that are labeled as 64% can taste vastly different. The only time a use those is as a way to differentiate between chocolates that one company makes, since they are rarely given other names.

· Some brands I tend to like: Voges, Sharffen berger, El Rey, Valrhona (though it’s given more credit than it is due), and Callebaut

· Some brands I tend to stay away from: Hershey’s, Lindt, Ghiradelli

These are, of course, my own opinion. I’m not going to come to your house and throw out all of the bad chocolate. In fact, I’m sure I have stashed away somewhere a couple Hershey’s bars from my last camping trip. Does that make me a hypocrite? Probably. Depends on whom you talk to.

As for the much-anticipated Valentines dessert, I decided to stick with something that most people could identify with. I took my inspiration from a hazelnut laté, and deconstructed it.

For the coffee part, I made an espresso semifreddo. Semifreddo literally means “half frozen,” but it really refers to a frozen mousse, of sorts, that has had so much air incorporated into it prior to freezing that it never gets completely solid. I simply whipped my espresso infused cream, whipped my egg yolks, and whipped my egg whites and gently folded them all together depositing into a flexipan and freezing.

For the first chocolate component of the plate, I made a pudding cake. Pudding cake, like French toast, is a great way to use up a product that would otherwise be thrown away. I had some leftover chocolate almond cake from a previous dessert. They were odd shaped pieces, some of which had dried out, but still tasted wonderful. To make the pudding cake, I made a custard of egg yolks, cream, sugar and chocolate, and then added the leftover cake, mixing until the pieces had broken up into a homogenous mass. They were then baked and allowed to cool in the freezer before cutting into little rectangles. They would be warmed to order, which would contrast nicely with the cold semifreddo.

The hazelnut component was the chocolate-hazelnut gelato that I froze into little cylinders. I topped the semifreddo with a toasted marshmallow at the behest of my girlfriend—who was kind enough to not be mad at me when I had to spend v-day with the restaurant instead of her, and finished the plate with some cocoa nib lace that provided the much-needed crunch.

I don’t have any recipes this week, but I do have some promising ideas.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Pistachio? Pistachio!

Whenever I swing by my parent’s house, there is a bowl sitting out in their living room filled with roasted, salted pistachios. I can plop myself down in a chair and blow through a handful of the little nuts before I even notice. For some reason, though, I have a certain disconnect with the salty little morsels in the bowl on their coffee table, and the nut so often used in European pastry.Pistachio Financier

It’s amazing to me that pistachios aren’t a bigger part of the American identity. We produce a lot of them. As of 2005, we were a close second to Iran in production, the majority of which comes from California. The nut, which is actually a drupe, originated in the Middle East, and was introduces to the United States in 1904. It thrives in airid climates, making places such as Iran, the Mediterranean, and southwest US ideal places for pistachios to grow.

Pistachios have a wonderful fruity flavor that is very well suited to sweet applications. While in the US they are generally bought, shell-on and roasted, for consumption as a snack food, there are occasionally places that sell them raw. If you can’t find them in a local store, there are plenty of internet sources that sell them.

Financiers (pronounced Fee-Nan-See-Ay) are another of those French confections that have fallen by the wayside of modern pastry. They are little cakes, generally made with almond flour, egg whites, sugar, and my favorite ingredient of all time: brown butter. Traditionally, they would be baked in little rectangular molds that would make them look like little gold ingots, hence the name financier. The cakes that ensue are enigmatic: light but chewy, airy but moist. Like the macaron, they are something that one can easily get hooked on.

As I said, financiers are traditionally made with almonds, but I don’t see any reason why one couldn’t use another nut in their place. A quick search through Google, and I found that I’m not alone. The only snafu I had was that I needed to make my own pistachio flour. In the end, it may be something that is worth buying pre-ground. In order to get the pistachios ground finely enough, I put them in a food processor to get them roughly ground, and then spread them out on a baking sheet in a LOW oven to dehydrate them for about 6 hours. I then put them in the freezer to get them rock hard before finally mixing them with 50% of the weight of sugar and putting them to the food processor one more time… As I said, it may be worth the investment to just buy the flour pre-ground. In terms of molds, you can certainly find financier molds, but its not strictly necessary. I used a flexipan with diamond shaped cavities, and was happy with the result. Also, mini muffin pans would work well.

Pistachio Financier adapted from Stephane Glacier M.O.F

Yield~ 30 cakes

250g Butter

300g Powdered Sugar

150g Pistachio Flour*

260g Egg whites

100g Flour

25g Honey

*If you are making your own, subtract the sugar added during grinding from the total sugar amount

1) Place butter in a small sauce pot over medium heat and brown until golden and nutty-smelling.

2) Add the honey to butter mixture and allow to cool

3) Sift together dry ingredients

4) Whip egg whites to soft peaks

5) Fold in the dry ingredients, followed by the browned butter

6) Place in piping bag and pipe into molds that have been sprayed with baking spray.

7) Bake at 400° for 12-15 minutes, rotating one in between

Coconut Rice Pudding, Pistachio Financier, Banana-pineapple SorbetWhat would go with pistachio financiers? Well, anything. In fact, it was only sheer willpower that kept me from eating the entire batch. Of course, they would be delicious with a cup of tea, such as Earl Grey, or English Breakfast. They also would be good dipped in chocolate or served with preserves. For me, I used them to sop up the remnants of a tasty coconut rice pudding with a scoop of banana-pineapple sorbet.

Saturday, February 6, 2010


I debated with myself a lot on whether or not to share this dessert. Its not that I have some personal interest in keeping the recipe secret, I just think the final plate ended up a less-then-perfect specimen of a plated dessert. Normally in this case, I would just forget about it and wait until I had something worth posting, but after some reflection, I have decided that there were strong elements about the dessert that I liked and which were worth sharing.
Tofu Cheesecake

As I have mentioned before, I don’t really like cheesecake. Blasphemy to many, I know. Get over it. Of course, I understand that other people like it, so from time to time I will throw one out there. Given this most recent cheesecake episode, I’m almost inclined to think that as long as you call it cheesecake, it doesn’t matter how ill-fashioned the dessert is: people fall on it like a pack of hungry wolves. It could taste like sawdust, and most people wouldn’t say a thing about it. After all, its cheesecake. How could it be bad? Not an inspiring thought.

I received, as either a Christmas or birthday gift, The Sweet Spot by Pichet Ong. It’s a book that I highly recommend, especially for anyone trying to make desserts in a sushi restaurant. While not limited only to Japanese sweets, it is a book of sweets, from cookies to custards, which have Asian influenced flavors and techniques. It was here that I was first introduced to the Tofu Cheesecake.

Tofu Cheesecake

As Pichet explains, Cheesecake is becoming almost as popular to the Japanese as it is to Americans. Presumably, someone Japanese cook discovered that by replacing the heavy cream cheese with tofu, the cheesecake could be made lighter. “Over time,” Ong explains “it has become something of a nouveau national dessert in Japan. The dairy-free, no-bake cheesecakes and perfect for a mostly lactose-intolerant population who, for the most part, don’t have ovens.”

Tofu Cheesecake adapted from Pichet Ong

Yield: ~1 9-inch cheesecake, or 10 individual ones

19oz silken tofu

2t Yuzu juice*

4oz Heavy cream

1t salt

5 sheets or 2¼t gelatin

2oz water

12oz cream cheese, room temperature

5½ oz sugar

*Lemon juice can be substituted for yuzu

1) Place tofu and yuzu in blander and blend until smooth

2) Hydrate gelatin in the water

3) Combine cream and salt, and scald

4) Add gelatin to cream and stir to dissolve. Combine with tofu mixture

5) Add cream and sugar to an electric mixer with paddle attachment and cream until light and fluffy

6) Slowly incorporate the tofu/cream mixture until homogenous

7) Pour over prepared crust or into individually prepared ring molds

As you can see, the recipe still calls for cream cheese because it really isn’t cheesecake without that dense, tangy richness. As it is, it tastes like tofu… but in a good way.

Tofu Cheesecake

I took the plain tofu cheesecake base, and poured it into ring molds and deposited a round of ganache in the bottom. Instead of the standard graham cracker crust (which I hate), I decided to do something a little different by sitting the cheesecake atop a cocoa nib crumble. To add a citrus pop, I topped the cheesecake with some basil seeds hydrated in sweetened yuzu juice. Lastly, the quintessential strawberries, this time in the form of strawberry pearls.

As I said, most of the components were delicious, but the plate was amateur. It looked a little jumbled together. If I were to do it again, I would probably change a few things:

1) The cheesecakes should have been molded and tamped better, to remove the air bubbles. It might not seem like a big deal, but it is.

2) Get rid of the basil seeds. I love basil seeds, but this was the wrong application.

3) Crumble the “crust” into smaller pieces, so that the cheesecake would stay level.

4) Change the plating… it looks messy