Roasted Beet Salad with Bleu Cheese Mousse, Arugula, and Walnuts

Monday, August 26, 2013

This is a super, super easy salad that I think looks so pretty. The star of the show is the bleu cheese mousse -- which honestly is just a much thicker good bleu cheese dressing. You can compose this salad however you like, but the mousse is designed to be able to sit in between thinly sliced perfectly roasted beets like a tower. I added the lightly dressed arugula on top and all around, and topped with a sprinkling of barely toasted walnuts for texture. A good turn of freshly ground black pepper is a perfect finishing touch. This recipe serves 4 people, appetizer size.

Roasted Beet Salad with Bleu Cheese Mousse, Arugula, and Walnuts
3 medium-large red beets (you can also use orange or whatever color beet you like, or a combination)
1/4 cup walnuts
6 oz creamy gorgonzola cheese
2 Tbsp marscapone cheese (can sub with a good cream cheese as well)
white balsamic vinegar
about 3 cups fresh arugula (can sub with baby spinach for milder taste; watercress for spicier bite)
good quality extra virgin olive oil
freshly ground black pepper

First, roast the beets. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Take the beets and cut off the bottom roots and top stems. Wash them (leave the skin on). Cover the beets completely in aluminum foil (like you would a baked potato) and place on oven-proof baking dish. Roast in oven until soft and tender, and easily pierced with a fork, about 35-50 minutes depending on the size of the beets. When tender, remove from oven and carefully open the aluminum foil. Let stand to cool.

While the beets cook, you can do the walnuts and mousse.

To toast the walnuts, simply place the nuts in a dry aluminum sauté pan. Cook on medium-low heat, turning occasionally with a spatula or spoon, until they just begin to become fragrant and turn light golden. No need to use extra oil or butter because the walnuts when heated will release their own natural walnut oil, which will help to toast them. Remove promptly from the pan and set aside.

To make the mousse, place the gorgonzola cheese, marscapone cheese, a small pinch of salt and pepper to taste in the bowl of a food processor. Add about 1/4 tsp of the white balsamic vinegar, and mix to combine the ingredients. The result will be a very, very thick bleu cheese type dressing.

If you are planning to make this for a dinner or event, you can roast the beets, walnuts, and make the mousse ahead of time and keep all elements refrigerated until you're ready to compose the salad.
Take the beets and using the back of a knife (i.e., not the sharp part you normally cut with), begin to scrape down the skin around the beet. You'll see it will come off quite easily. Discard the skin then take the beet and slice it thinly. Set aside.
Place the arugula in a mixing bowl. Season it with salt and pepper to taste, and drizzle with some olive oil and a small splash of the white balsamic. Toss to coat.
To assemble the salad, simply Take a slice of beet, top with some mousse, another slice of beet on top, and continue to build towers however tall you'd like. Make as many or as little towers you wish. To plate, add a little bit of the arugula to the middle of the plate. Place your tower on top -- the arugula will help to anchor the beets to the plate -- and top with a generous heap of more dressed arugula on top. Sprinkle with a few walnuts and add a fresh crack of black pepper. Serve.

"Sunflower" Orange Cupcakes with Orange Yellow Buttercream Frosting

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Whew! Been a crazy summer over here with all the goings on! Feels good to be back to blogging! Starting off, a fabulous recipe for simple but gorgeous orange cupcakes...
I've been testing and testing recipes for months, trying to get a nice and easy, basic cupcake recipe that can be tweaked with flavorings or colors for frosting to use over and over again and I think I've finally got it! This version takes a basic vanilla based white cupcake batter and infuses it with bright orange zest. I take the orange a step further in the frosting a well, adding some zest to the buttercream and a dash of yellow food coloring to achieve a perfect, delightful yellow color. They remind me of the color of sunflower petals, hence the name. If my decorating skills were up to par, I would have piped them to look like sunflowers but sadly, I fall short in this part of the kitchen.
I found the trick to a great white batter is using beaten egg whites that are then folded into the rest of the batter. This gives a nice airy texture to the cupcakes. Also, using good quality vanilla extract is a must -- I use Madagascar vanilla extract. I find it to be the best, very fragrant and has a nice, smooth bourbonesque finish. You can find it at Williams Sonoma and Whole Foods.  

I also found using buttermilk yields the best cupcake. The acidity in the buttermilk (as opposed to using regular milk) gives a nice, background subtle tang to the batter without overpowering it. It also makes a softer, moister cupcake in my opinion. If you can't find or don't have buttermilk, in a pinch you can use a combination of sour cream, milk, and a little extra orange juice, but honestly using the buttermilk is just best and easier.

You'll also notice here I use cake flour. Different than all-purpose flour, which are usually in my recipes, I do believe that for basic cupcakes cake flour is best. Again, it gets you that fluffy and moist cupcake texture without becoming gummy.

And of course, as with all baking, make sure everything is at room temperature so all the ingredients incorporate evenly.

I think these are so cute done with mini-cupcake liners and baked in mini-muffin pans. They're adorable and easy to eat. I love the yellow color and think they're just perfect for summer and early fall. They'd make a great back-to-school treat, or fall party dessert. They're wonderful for church gatherings as summer winds down and fall begins her approach. I piped my frosting using a basic pattern and topped with a candied pearl. Go ahead and use whatever sprinkles or piping technique you know. I'd love to see someone do these in a sunflower shape or piping! If you try it, please email me the pictures! Happy baking!

"Sunflower" Orange Cupcakes with Orange Yellow Buttercream Frosting
1 3/4 cup cake flour
1/2 tsp fine salt
2 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 lb (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
2 eggs, separated
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
1/2 cup buttermilk, at room temperature

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Line 2 mini-muffin pans with mini-cupcake liners. Set aside.

First, sift together the cake flour, salt, and baking powder in a bowl. Sifting the ingredients together before adding them to the rest of the batter ensures they'll be evenly distributed throughout the batter. If you skip this step, you can get ball clumps of flour which are both unsightly and not tasty. Set aside.

Now take the egg whites and using the handheld electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachments, begin to beat the egg whites until white and stiff peaks form. For more details on how to do this, check out this previous post here. Set aside.

Next, place the butter in the bottom of a large mixing bowl. Using a handheld electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachments, begin to cream the butter. Once the butter is thoroughly creamed and beginning to turn paler in color, add the sugar and continue to mix together on medium speed until the sugar is completely incorporated and the texture becomes lighter and fluffy.

Next, add the eggs one at a time. Each time you add the egg beat it thoroughly into the batter before adding the next ingredients, but be careful not to overmix it in either!

You'll notice the batter now has a lovely deep yellow color and is light and fluffy in texture.

Next, add the vanilla and orange zest to the batter and mix in to combine.

Now, beginning with the flour mixture you sifted at the beginning, add a third of it into the batter and mix it to combine. Then add half of the buttermilk. Add another third of the flour mixture, the rest of the buttermilk, then end with the rest of the flour mixture.

Each time you want to make sure you're mixing it in so everything's combined, but don't sit there for hours either so you overmix the batter. In the end it will look pale yellow in color, and make a ribbon-type effect in texture as so:

Now fold in the egg whites into the batter using a spatula. Yes, you have to use a spatula. No, you cannot use the whisk or paddle attachments on your mixer. No, you cannot use a spoon. No, you can't use a wooden spoon or a metal spoon or a dinner fork. This is why spatulas exist. For more detailed description on the folding technique, look here.

Once the egg whites have been folded into the batter, you are ready to scoop and bake.
Fill each liner with some batter -- a good heaping teaspoon's worth is perfect -- and place in middle rack of oven. Bake until set and toothpick comes out clean, 10-15 minutes depending on your oven's strength. Be careful not to overbake! Rather than looking at color, test with toothpick for most accurate doneness.
Remove from the baking pans and set on wire racks to cool. While cooling, make the frosting.
Basic Buttercream Frosting

2 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature
4 cups powdered (aka confectioner's) sugar
small pinch of fine salt (like 1/8 tsp)
1 Tbsp good vanilla extract
*1 tsp yellow food coloring gel (optional)
*1/2 tsp orange zest -- was added to this version pictured (optional)
The texture of the butter is paramount to a good frosting. First, it needs to be room temperature. It needs to be soft. If you have any resistance with a knife going through it, it's not soft enough. If it's melting it's too soft. If it's the consistency of a scoop of ice cream it's perfect.
I like making frosting in the standing mixer because it's easier. Place the butter in the bowl of the standing mixer, fitted with the paddle attachments. Cream the butter a few minutes on  medium speed until light and fluffy. Add the sugar a little at a time and mix on low speed -- if you did a higher speed the sugar will poof in a cloud all over yourself and your kitchen. Be patient and mix slowly until you've added all of your sugar, then crank the speed up to medium-high and mix until the frosting has body, about 4-5 minutes.
Add the vanilla, orange zest if using, and food coloring and continue to mix on medium-high speed until the color transforms and infuses into the frosting, about another 2-3 minutes. Take a spatula and mix once more by hand to make sure everything is evenly mixed in.
The frosting is ready to use.

If you want to pipe the frosting, transfer it to a piping bag fitted with your desired piping tip fixed. Pipe the cooled cupcakes to your desired pattern and top with any sprinkles or decorations you wish.

Serve or refrigerate until ready to serve. Bring out to room temperature before serving.

Kitchen Basics: The Proper Folding Technique

We're not talking laundry here...
Another important technique the home cook really needs to know is folding. Sometimes recipes both in baking and cooking (but more often in baking) require ingredients to be folded rather than incorporated, added, or otherwise mixed in. There is a huge difference when you fold something into a dish rather than just adding it.
Folding is going to involve somehow getting an ingredient that is very delicate in its texture to mix in with something heavier. You're using a technique to very gently "mix in" this lighter ingredient, all the while preserving the integrity of its texture, into something heavier that will crush it if you don't do it right. Soufflés, some cake batters, some pastry dishes will call for folding. You can also fold ingredients in that you don't want broken up -- like folding in delicate raspberries into a batter for muffins where you want to keep the berries as whole as possible rather than breaking them up into mush throughout the batter. Whatever it is you're making, the technique is the same.
You need one hugely important utensil for this: a good spatula.
You can't use wooden spoons, metal spoons, forks, whisks, or anything else for this. Truly a spatula is best and easiest. It's designed in a way where it picks up the delicate ingredient you're trying to fold in, suspends it gently, then cuts through the heavier ingredients without losing the lighter one or being clumsy. It has maximum control, so it's important you invest in some good ones. I like keep a bunch of all different sizes, from teeny tiny ones to big honkers as pictured below. They're pretty affordable and come in all sorts of fun colors, so get a good, sturdy set of spatulas.
Now, the process of folding.
For this post we'll use egg whites to be folded into a cupcake batter. Folding beaten egg whites is the most common scenario where folding is called for, so it makes sense to use that as the example. So here we have pictured the heavier cupcake batter on the bottom, the super light and fluffy egg whites we have to somehow mix into the batter, and my trusty red spatula.
Step 1: Dump the ingredients to be folded in right on top of where they need to be folded into.


Step 2: Take your spatula, and cut directly through the middle of the egg whites and batter.

Go all the way through the egg whites and down into that batter. Feel the spatula grab the batter underneath. Don't be afraid -- you're not killing the egg whites.

Step 3: Begin to turn the spatula clockwise, lifting the ingredients up and together.

Make sure you get all the way down and under. Notice how the spatula is positioned, ready to lift the batter and egg whites together, back up on the flat part of the spatula.

Step 4: Complete the rotation lifting the spatula with ingredients on it straight up into the air, and ready to cut down the middle again.

Notice how the ingredients stuck to the spatula? Now the next time you come down, you're mixing in the batter into the egg whites!
Step 5: Cut through the middle again, straight through the batter, turn, and come up.

Each time you cut through, turn the bowl slightly to the left to help it go faster. Keep this motion of cut through middle, turn spatula, lift up, and back down the middle, each time moving the bowl with your other hand slightly clockwise. Keep doing this and after a few turns it will look like this:

Notice the big chunks of egg whites still left intact? This is good -- we are preserving the air and delicate texture of the batter doing this.

Keep going slightly more and you'll notice the body of the batter has thickened considerably.

You have now fully folded your ingredients.

This technique will feel awkward at first, but you'll get the hang it of pretty quickly as you practice. Don't be discouraged -- it's something that will take you a few times to get the hang of it. Once you do you'll whip up folding in seconds. At first, go slowly and make sure you practice the motions -- pay attention to your hand grip, your wrist flip, how you hold the spatula, and get used to working together with both hands doing something different at the same time (one hand folding, other hand moving bowl). Don't go too fast -- it's important you internalize the motions and make them robotic and then you can add speed.

Egg whites are an inexpensive and easy way to practice this technique. You can also try delicate berries in freshly whipped cream (the opposite -- heavier, denser berries getting folded into a lighter textured whipped cream; same concept and technique though!). Once you've got this down you can feel quite confident attacking those soufflés and fancier French pastry recipes!

Kitchen Basics: The Stiff Peak

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Within the baking sphere there is a term that often confounds the reader of baking cookbooks (myself included). It's called "beat until stiff peaks form."
What in the hell does that mean?! When I hear "stiff peaks" I think of anything from a geological factoid I snoozed through sophomore year when I took Random Geology Class That Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time to some totally inappropriate sexual reference the cool kids are doing. Either way, when I heard the phrase for a long time I got really nervous. Finally, one day watching Ina she demonstrated with her causal ease what stiff peaks are and then it was "OH!!!! Hahahaaaa that's it?!" I wiped the sweat from my flour-covered brow.
With summer at its apex now, we're doing a lot of traditional summer desserts like angel food cakes and cupcakes and cakes, meringues, and various other fabulous confections. And with fall and the holidays approaching soon enough as well, I thought a quick tutorial demonstrating The Stiff Peak phenomena was long overdue. So here goes!
First of all, stiff peaks usually means two things: cream or eggs. Either you're beating heavy cream to stiff peak point to make homemade whipped cream or you're beating egg whites in order to create meringues or to fold into other batters. No matter if it's cream or eggs, the principals are the same.
Here's what you'll need:
  • a handheld electric mixer or standing mixer fitted with whisk attachments
  • a large sturdy bowl
That's it. It's really that easy.
Now, the term "stiff peak" refers to literally these little stiff peaks you will eventually create by incorporating vast amounts of air into the cream or egg white via the revolutions of your whisks. This is why having an electric mixer is better -- it will create the peaks faster and far easier than if you did it by hand, which is also certainly very possible. But to give you an idea -- whisking egg whites by hand to stiff peak will take around 10 minutes; electric mixer is around 2-3 minutes.
For purposes of this post we'll demonstrate the egg stiff peak. First, place your egg whites (this means separate the yolks out people, and just add the white parts!) into the bottom of a large sturdy bowl:


Next, begin mixing the whites! Simply turn on your machine to the maximum speed and let it go!

After about 30 seconds you'll see the color of the yellowish egg whites begin to turn whiter, and will get frothy and bubbly in texture. This is good -- this is the air beginning to incorporate into the body of the whites (the bubbles!):

After about a minute you'll see more body to the whites. The color has turned decided ivory in color, the bubbles are getting smaller and smaller, and you're seeing the mixture beginning to thicken up. Keep going at maximum speed during the entire process!

From the point it starts to turn white it will go quite fast. Within seconds you'll see the mixture thicken more and more and the color get whiter and whiter. It's kind of magical.

Around the 2 minute mark you'll see the mixture has gotten quite thick. You'll see teeny tiny bubbles throughout, and the color is decidedly white now. The mixture is getting thick enough where it can hold itself and not collapse. But keep going just a few seconds more...

And finally...wait for've achieved Stiff Peak Status. When the mixture is thick enough you can grab some with the whisks and hold it up for 3 seconds and the egg whites don't fall off, you've achieved Stiff Peak Status. Congratulations!

Also notice the first picture of the post -- quite literally, when you beat the mixture enough and you can take the whisks out and form a peak like a mountain that holds its shape, you have "stiff peaks." Meaning, the peak is there and stiff because it doesn't collapse back down.

Now, why the hell do you even need to know this? Because some recipes require you to fold in beaten egg whites (post on folding to follow) and because using stiff peak egg whites lets you now make pie with a meringue topping, meringue cookies, or adding a fluffier texture to your next cupcake or cake recipe.

The principal is similar to making homemade whipped cream. I'll blog that one later. But this is all you need! Good luck!