Culinary Sagacity

~Thought for Food~

The Cathayans believed that the soul or mind is located not in the head but in the stomach.

Doubtless this explains why they fret so much about the preparation and serving of food.

It may also explain why their memories are so much better than ours.

Information is stored not in the finite head, but in the expandable stomach.

--Cyrus Spitama in Gore Vidal's Creation

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Champagne: A Few Facts on Real French Bubbly

We all love Champagne this time of year, but nobody loves Champagne—anytime of year, in fact— like the French. My first holiday season with a French man brought this fact home, literally, with more Champagne than I could have imagined. With cousins visiting from France, cousins who produce Champagne for Moët et Chandon, there was an obscene amount of bubbly, most of it unlabeled, from the private family reserve.

It would be hard to describe with any clarity just what that first French-infused Christmas and New Year's Eve were like. After all, with so much Champagne flowing, that particular week from Christmas to New Year is pretty much one big, bubbly blur. Since that holiday, we haven't had his cousins to visit, but we still go for the Champagne big time, as you can see by my Fridge.

Shopping for Champagne

First things first, even if you already know this—I'm always surprised how many people don't know—Champagne comes from only one place in the world, the region of Champagne, France. Anything else must be labeled "Sparkling Wine" or "Champenoise." While there are a few Sparkling Wines out there that I have heard are pretty decent (mostly from California, Australia and New Zealand), I don't really drink the stuff. If it's not real Champagne, it's not usually on my table. The only sparkling wine I genuinely like is Lambrusco, a sparkling Rosé produced in my home town of Reggio nell'Emilia, Italy (Trader Joe's has a very nice one for a super bargain price).

If you're planning to drink a lot of Champagne in one night, and you don't have family bringing you cases from France, then you should consider buying a Magnum (= 2 bottles), a Jeroboam (= 4 bottles), a Rihoboam (= 6 bottles), or a Methuselah (=8 bottles). The sizes go all the way up to the ludicrously large Melchizedek, which holds 40 bottles. Thing is, you will save some dough by getting these larger bottles rather than buying their volume equivalent in normal, 750ml bottles. Plus, it is a fact that the Champagne in a Magnum and a Jeroboam actually taste better and are more bubbly than the standard size, and the Jeroboam is the best. But, this isn't the case as the bottles get larger than the Jeroboam.

Champagne Brands and Labels

While all real Champagne is better than Sparkling Wine, the best of the best are Louis Roederer's Cristal Champagne, Laurent-Perrier's Grand Siècle, Krug Cuvée, and any Moët et Chandon Vintage Dom Perignon. Of course Louis Roederer and Laurent-Perrier have other Champagnes that won't cost nearly as much and will be pretty darn fabulous even if they're not the top label. I never shell out the big bucks for a bottle (I let others do that for me), but if I stick to buying real Champagne—even a $40-$80 bottle like a Perrier-Jouët or Veuve-Cliquot—I'm never disappointed.

When it comes to reading labels, there's way more to know than I can tell you here, but I'll just give a few basics that will help you navigate. First, it's good to know that most all Champagnes are a blend of the Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes. Any single grape Champagnes will be labeled "Blanc de Blanc" when it's pure Chardonnay, and "Blanc de Noir" when it's a pure Pinot Noir or Meunier.

The label designations that let you know how much alcohol is in the Champagne (it varies), are Extra Brut, Brut, Sec, Demi-Sec, Doux and Extra Doux, with Extra Brut being the most alcohol and Extra Doux being the least. You may be surprised to know that a Vintage or Reserve designation is actually given by the producer, according to what they deem is a particularly good year, but there are no regulations there to follow, it's basically just the producer's opinion. However, a Cuvée class Champagne does have regulatory standards to meet, so it's generally better than a Vintage or a Reserve. In any case, a Vintage, Reserve, or Cuvée are all best drunk about five-ten years from the year on the label.

Pouring and Preservation

My last tips are to always pour your Champagne against the side of a tilted flute, to control the bubble overflow. Also, pour Champagne into glasses that weren't washed in a dishwasher, but hand-washed. Even the slightest film left from a dishwasher isn't great when mixed with Champagne. If, for some unknown reason, you should have an unfinished bottle you want to save, get a proper Champagne stopper and it'll last one extra day. A wine stopper just doesn't work on Champagne.

While Champagne is never super cheap, really, who wants to drink something super cheap for a celebration? But, if you're on a tight budget, supplement just one bottle of Champagne with however many bottles of Lambrusco from Reggio nell'Emilia because it's a good, inexpensive companion.

As I gear up for that time of year when the Champagne flows freely, I can take comfort that one other wonderful thing about Champagne is the fact that the good stuff doesn't leave you with a terrible hang-over, however blurry your bubbly evening (or brunch) gets. When it comes to celebrations, I follow the French, and if you do too, your guests—not to mention your taste buds, head and tummy—will thank you.

Champagne on Foodista

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Vanilla Bean

Most home cooks experience the flavor of vanilla through the commonly-found vanilla extract. While admittedly fresh vanilla beans aren't cheap, like with quality chocolate, they're worth the cost for better flavor. Having been lucky enough to order fresh, plump vanilla beans through restaurant distributors, I'm nevertheless aware that the vanilla beans you find in your market's spice or baking isle can be dried out and hard. Just shake the little glass bottle containing the vanilla bean and if you hear a clinking sound instead of a thudding sound, then that bean in the bottle has seen better days.

Though I find that Whole Foods 365-brand has consistently good vanilla beans, I appreciate we don't all live near a Whole Foods Market. So you may have to buy that dry bean and bring it home with you. But all hope isn't lost, just about 10 second in the microwave, wrapped in a damp paper towel, can refresh your dry vanilla bean, allowing you to scrape out the insides with ease.

My personal favorite vanilla beans are the rare Tahitians. But ample vanilla is grown in other Rainforest-rich countries like Mexico, Indonesia, Madagascar, and the Philippines. I once got hold of some premium Mexican vanilla beans, and although I still favor Tahitian, when I cut into one of these moist and plump pods, the scent of vanilla filled my entire apartment and the insides were so large and shiny that they resembled caviar.

Adding Vanilla Bean to Any Recipe

Whether your vanilla bean is a bit dry or whether it's sent to you fresh from friends living in Tahiti, it's never a bad idea to wrap the bean in a damp paper towel and pop it in the microwave for 3-5 seconds, up to 10 if your bean is dry.

When you pull your warm, wonderful bean from the microwave, you then slit the bean in two lengthwise with a small paring knife. Once the bean is split, you scrape the insides out with the back of your knife by opening the split bean, pressing your knife down to hold it open, and running the back of your knife all the way down the inside of the bean in one motion. If you had a dry bean to begin with, you can use the cutting-edge of your knife to scrape the insides.

You can add real vanilla bean to any recipe. If you're making a recipe that calls for you to cream the butter and sugar together, add the insides of the vanilla bean to the butter and sugar before creaming. For any recipe that calls for heated milk or cream, add the vanilla to the milk/cream before heating, and also toss in the hollowed out pod and keep it in the milk/cream while you heat it—this will add even more real vanilla flavor to your dessert. You can also add the vanilla to eggs in any recipe, whisking it into the eggs before adding the eggs to the rest of your batter or dough. For obvious reasons, never add vanilla to dry ingredients.

When you're done with your bean, don't throw it out! A scraped vanilla bean can be dried out overnight just by sitting on your counter, and then you can take that shell of a bean and stick it in your sugar jar where it will infuse your sugar with the rich scent and flavor of real vanilla. If you pulled your emptied bean out of heated milk or cream, just rinse it under water before drying it.

Like I said before, I love vanilla—it's my favorite flavor, but it's also an understated and often neglected flavor in its own right. Thing is, if you want to make anything where vanilla is the star, you basically have no option other than the real vanilla bean. With everything from cupcakes, ice cream, pastry cream, and sugar cookies, without those little specs of real vanilla in the mix, you just won't get the flavor of real vanilla in the end product—and that's where you're missing out. The lack of real vanilla beans in stores and the dawn of imitation vanilla extract hasn't helped the humble vanilla bean much, but the truth is there's nothing humble about a product that costs nearly $100 per pound, tastes like heaven, and is born of delicate Orchids.

Vanilla on Foodista

Monday, December 15, 2008

Christmas Yule Log: How to Create A Beautiful Bûche de Noël

Of all the goodies I bake for the holidays, I'd have to say that the most fun, and the one that gets the most "Oohs and Aahs" is the classic French Bûche de Noël, know here as a Christmas Yule Log. The cake is super simple, and all the real work goes into decorating. Call me silly, but I don't mind spending a couple of hours decorating a Christmas cake, it's what makes the holidays so special for me and my friends, who love to come over and help (yours will too).

I use a recipe from Jacques Pépin, for his Chocolate Roll. On his website he also has a recipe for a Bûche de Noël, but I've found that his Chocolate Roll is quicker, easier, and yummier, and the filling is a simple Chantilly (whipped heavy cream) to which you can add whatever flavoring agents you like (almond extract, Brandy, orange liquor, etc.).

Make the Cake

You'll find pretty much all of the information you need to make the chocolate roll at Jacques Pépin's website. But there's a few things I'd like to mention that aren't in his recipe. First, his "cake" is really a recipe for a chocolate soufflé, but spread into a jelly-roll pan (a cookie sheet with edges), instead of being baked in a ramekin. So while it's a quick batter, it's a very delicate one, so just go easy on it, and if you need further help, read my Baking Tips & Techniques article here at Rollick that explains the ins and outs of folding delicate batters.

When you've baked the cake, let it cool completely on a cooling rack out of the pan—in the pan the edges will continue to dry out, but leave the parchment (not waxed) paper, it's going to be important when it comes time to roll it. You can cover the sheet of cake in plastic wrap and refrigerate it overnight before filling and rolling. It should be cool or cold when you spread the Chantilly.

I actually whip the Chantilly just to the point at which it looks like I've gone a bit too far—it starts to get a tiny bit lumpy—then I stop. The reason I whip the cream this extra little bit is because it won't ooze out under the weight of the cake when you roll it, and it produces a Chantilly that is somewhat like a buttercream in that it's smooth and buttery. In Jacques Pépin's recipe, he uses confectioners sugar, vanilla extract and Kirsch, but like I said above, you can use whatever flavoring agents you like, but stick to confectioners sugar and his measurements.

Let it roll

For making the Bûche de Noël, once you've spread the cream evenly, roll—don't fold—the cake along its long side. Grab the parchment and use that as your rolling aid, removing it from the cake as you roll it by pulling it gently away with one hand while the other helps roll the cake. When it's rolled, you'll see that you can then, in the same movement, wrap the cake back into the parchment. Then wrap the whole thing in plastic wrap to chill.

You'll create the shape of the Bûche de Noël by cutting off small slices of the chocolate roll and placing them on and side-long to the main "trunk." That's why you roll it along the long edge so you get a long, thin log. But, if you want to just serve the chocolate roll as a dessert without decorating, you can roll the cake along the short side so you'll have a shorter, fatter log. This cake is so good that even without all the decorations you've got a fabulous dessert that lasts for 4 days in your fridge (well, if you don't gobble it up sooner).

Whether you turn the chocolate roll into a Bûche de Noël or serve it as is, you still need to refrigerate the completed roll overnight so it can set up well before decorating or serving.

The best part: Decorating!

A traditional Bûche de Noël is covered in a chocolate ganache, meringue mushrooms, and chocolate leaves. A thick, dark ganache, spread or poured over the log and "branches" covers everything and hides the messy "stumps" underneath. Then you just run a fork over it to make the ganache have the appearance of bark.

The mushrooms are made from a Swiss meringue, and get piped in two parts: the stem and the button top. First pipe the tops onto parchment, leaving space on the sheet pan. Bake just until they set, then pull them out of the oven and pipe the stems. Then carefully lift the tops, place them on the just-piped stems, and continue baking. I sprinkle some cocoa powder on them when cooled so they have a brown appearance. I also like to make meringue Christmas trees. With a star-shaped piping tip, pipe the meringue in the same manner as the mushrooms, starting with the smallest tree tier.

For the chocolate leaves, the easiest thing to do is to grab some Holly leaves, wash and dry them completely, and simply spread the melted white chocolate on the leaves in a (not too) thick layer and let them set in the fridge. Once the chocolate is set, you carefully peel away the leaf from the chocolate and you're left with a white chocolate leaf that has the shape, texture, and veins of the real Holly. You can always mix green food color into your melted white chocolate if you want green leaves.

When you've got your mushrooms and leaves (any maybe trees), then you just place them on and around the Bûche however you like. You can also use marzipan for mushrooms and red Holly berries, or just get creative and do your own thing!

When I do my Bûche de Noël, I never make it alone. Friends are always happy to help, and as you'll make way more mushrooms, trees and leaves than you can use on the Bûche, you all can nibble on them as you decorate. The holidays are all about getting together with the people we love, and for me, they're also about making the food I love. Having a Bûche decorating party is a unique way to bring people and food together for a holiday tradition that goes way beyond cookies.