Monday, September 17, 2007

Chocolate and Coffee

Lately one of my favorite things is chocolate and coffee - not as in a caffe mocha, not as in a coffee flavored chocolate, but as in a cup of coffee with a piece of chocolate. Now I am reluctant to even wade in here, because emotions run so high on this topic, but I love milk chocolate, and no that does not make me common or a bad person or one with no appreciation of fine food - though the looks I get suggest all of those things and worse. Nevertheless, a good espresso or americano with a piece of milk chocolate on the side is heaven - the perfect balance of sweet and bitter. My current and long time favorite is Ritter Sport - the butter biscuit is divine and the milk chocolate with whole hazelnuts is sublime. Both are good for breakfast. The rum raisin, a treat for later in the day, is often just what the doctor ordered. And there's the cappuccino, and the marzipan, and . . . . well, pretty much all of them. On a memorable day last summer we bought one of each, broke them into squares, arranged them attractively on a plate and served them as dessert after a lovely dinner on the deck!

I will also happily eat dark chocolate, especially with a coffee like the one in the picture - an espresso macchiato, in Florence. But not dirt chocolate, which is my term for pretty much anything with a higher than 85% cocoa solids. Come on people - that is just awful. There isn't enough sugar or cocoa butter to have a decent mouthfeel or to really bring out the flavor of the chocolate. There - I could go on and on, but I won't. Well, maybe a little - it's like eating deliberately underripe strawberries with no sugar - why? They are more succulent and delicious with sugar - not to mention a bit of heavy cream, so why not enjoy life a little?
Like with this chocolate confection at Mamma Gina's on the Borgo San Jacopo in Florence. Go there. Drink a Brunello, eat a bistecca, and find room for this dessert!

Of course dessert in Florence naturally leads me to chocolate (or hazelnut, or gianduia) gelato - with coffee it is beyond fabulous. More to come on that topic - research is still underway.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Pear Extravaganza

Pear-Walnut Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting

It's pear season, and we have them and then some. Our own Bartletts and d'Anjous, and Dad's exotic varieties from Australia and Germany - Peckham's Triumph, Forelle, and others I can't name. They say that the Boscs are the best for cooking, and I can't honestly dispute that, but we don't have any of those this year and with 40 pounds of free pears in the fridge, I'm not buying any!

This pear cake was inspired by a recipe of Mom's for a tea bread - after reading it, it struck me that it looked a lot like my carrot cake recipe. I will post the recipe as soon as I write it out, but if you use a carrot cake recipe, just substitute ripe diced pears for the carrot, and reduce the sugar by about 25%. Everything else stays the same. You could also substitute ginger and nutmeg for the cinnamon that is usually called for, and of course you could use pecans instead of walnuts. Leave OUT the coconut, pineapple and raisins that some heathens put in their carrot cakes.

My all time favorite pear recipe is French Pear Pie - an odd little pie crust made with oil and milk, filled with wine-poached pears, gingered sour cream, and topped with a nutmeg-scented crumble topping. It's a bit involved, what with all the different components - I usually make the crust and poach the pears the night before, then make the sour cream and crumble topping the day I bake it. It is pretty easy if you make the crust in the food processor first, then make the crumble topping, then make the sour cream filling, reusing the bowl without having to clean it.

French Pear Pie
This is worth the time and effort.

1 bottle white wine
1 cup water
2 cups sugar
juice of half a lemon
4 bosc pears, peeled, halved and cored

2¼ cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon milk
9 tablespoons vegetable oil

Sour Cream Filling:
3 tablespoons flour
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1½ cups sour cream

1/2 cup flour
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 cup chilled butter

Poach pears. Combine wine, sugar and lemon and boil 10 minutes, add pear halves and simmer 10-30 minutes until they pierce easily with a knife. Remove pears and reserve liquid for reuse.

Make pastry. Stir flour and salt together in a bowl. Combine milk and oil but don't stir. Pour all at once into flour. Mix and form into two balls. Roll half the dough out between two sheets of waxed paper – do not try this any other way or the dough will fall apart – and fit it into a 9-inch pie pan. Freeze the other half for use another time or make two pies.

Prepare filling by mixing all ingredients together.

Prepare topping by mixing dry ingredients and cutting in butter until mealy.

Arrange pear halves in crust. Pour on filling and sprinkle topping over. Bake at 400°F for 25-30 minutes or until pie is golden brown. Do not overbake.

This is Billie Moreland's recipe from her restaurant in Spokane. I waitressed there my senior year in college and was captivated by her desserts. She never gave out recipes, so I was thrilled to find this in a cookbook 11 years later. It was a favorite of customers when she made it and it was always cut into 6 enormous pieces – I think it actually serves 8 unless no one has had anything else to eat.
I have also modified the recipe to make a bar cookie - Plateau Creme de Poire - simply use an 11x17 cookie sheet and make the crust in a food processor with 2 cups of flour, 1/2 cup of confectioner's sugar, and one stick of melted butter - add a bit of water if necessary until it is the consistency of damp sand, then press it into the parchment lined sheet and prebake for 20 minutes. Then spread on the sour cream topping, pave with thinly sliced poached pears, and finish with a double recipe of the crumble topping. Bake for an additional 25 minutes. Let cool and cut into bars to serve.

Empirical testing has shown that pears poached in wine, even crummy wine you wouldn't drink, taste far better than pears poached in water - even if you dress the water up with lemon juice and sugar. Since we make our own wine, we have a fairly reliable supply of not-so-great bottles, extremely suitable for cooking. But a $4.99 bottle of Riesling or a $2 bottle of any kind of white from Trader Joe's is perfect, I promise. Heck, take a small glass for yourself if you want - the pears won't miss it!