Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The farm report

Plum season is almost here!  I've had my eye on this plum all week:

It's still not quite ready yet, but it is oh-so-close and tempting.

DH and I have also been enjoying the occasional fig over the past few days.  In addition, although we're only getting a decent amount of fruit from one of our three blueberry bushes this year, that one bush is looking good:

We've been scarfing blueberries for the past couple of weeks, although I have to confess that the vast majority of them come from our local farmers' market.  During the season, I buy a five-pound box every Saturday from Beckmann Berry Farm.

I haven't been sewing much lately, although I did manage to make a bunch of drawstring bags and zippered pouches for my Etsy shop a week ago or so.  Here's a shot of a few of them:

Sewing time has been scarce lately for a variety of reasons.  First, I came across the Studio Ghibli film fest at the Pacific Cinematheque, so we've been spending a lot of evenings at the movies over the past ten days.  Second, my big baking project took a big chunk of time out of the weekend.  Third, I'm in the midst of remodeling in my sewing room and am installing a lot of wall cabinetry in order to try and get the clutter under control.  I'm too embarrassed to show any "before" photos, but I hope I'll have some photos of the end result by early next week.  I'm planning big trips to Rona and Ikea this weekend.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Summer Baking: Chestnut Almond Torte

About once a year or so, I'll bake a fancy, decadent cake.  This year's excuse came with an invitation to a dinner party this evening, and since I know one of the guests is allergic to wheat gluten, I pulled out an old favorite recipe for a flour-free Viennese chestnut almond torte.  My recipe originates from Lilly Joss Reich's The Viennese Pastry Cookbook (1970), but I've tweaked it over the years.

Here are the ingredients:

The torte:
4 egg yolks
3/4 cup sugar
1 15.5 oz. can of chestnut puree
2 Tbs. rum (optional)
1 cup ground almonds (I use Trader Joe's almond flour)
5 egg whites

Chocolate whipped cream filling:
5 oz. bittersweet chocolate
1 c. heavy cream or whipping cream

Apricot glaze:
1/2 c. apricot jam
2-3 Tbs. rum (optional)

Chocolate icing:
4 oz. bittersweet chocolate
3-4 Tbs. water
1-2 Tbs. butter

9-inch springform pan

Step 1: Baking the torte

Butter and flour the pan (use almond flour instead of wheat flour if you're avoiding wheat gluten), and set it aside.  Take the chestnut puree and pass it through a wire mesh sieve or ricer to fluff it up--you should have a heaping 2 cups of puree when you're done.  Alternatively, you can boil or roast the chestnuts, peel them, and then rice or grate them, which is what I used to do until we moved to Vancouver and I discovered that canned chestnut puree is readily available in the French and Italian specialty shops here.

At this point, you can start preheating the oven to 350 F.

Next, beat the egg yolks and sugar together in a large bowl until they are thick, pale yellow, and form the ribbon.  In another bowl, beat the egg whites until they form stiff and shiny peaks.  (For detailed advice on these steps, I consulted Julia Child, The Way to Cook, but I'm sure you can find excellent tutorials on the web as well.)

If you're using the rum (I skipped it because there will be children at tonight's party who will likely not enjoy the taste), sprinkle it onto the chestnuts.  Use a rubber spatula to mix the riced chestnuts into the beaten egg yolks and sugar.  Next, fold in the ground almonds, and then quickly but carefully fold in the egg whites.  When you have incorporated the egg whites, pour the batter into the springform pan and place it in the oven.

Bake at 350 F for ten minutes, and then reduce the heat to 325 F.  Continue baking for another 45-60 min.  The torte is done when you insert a fork or toothpick and it comes out dry.  When the torte is ready, take it out of the oven and let it cool on a rack until it reaches room temperature.  When the cake is cool, run a knife around the edges, and remove the ring of the springform pan.  Lick the crumbs, if any, so you can get a first taste of your torte.

Note: the torte at this point will look quite modest.  It should rise a bit in the oven, but it's likely to fall as it cools, and it's usually only about an inch or so thick (at least when I make it):

Don't worry about how the torte looks: it tastes delicious, I promise.  I've wondered if it would rise more if I tried took the sieved chestnut puree and heated it in a dry pan in order to take some of the moisture out.  Maybe it would--my memory might be failing, but I have the feeling that the torte rose more back when I started with whole chestnuts.  But maybe not, given the high ratio of chestnuts and almonds to eggs. After all, a French spongecake made with the same techniques would use well under a cup of flour.  Perhaps I should add another yolk and white? 

I usually bake the torte the night before and then do all of the assembly the next day.  If you wanted, though, you could bake in the morning and assemble in the afternoon.  Putting the cake together after it's finished and cooled takes a little over an hour, or more, if you decide on a fancier finish.

Step 2: Making the filling and layering the cake

For the whipped cream filling: Put a large metal mixing bowl in the refrigerator so that it will be cold when you're ready to whip the cream.  Then melt the chocolate in a double boiler.  I just use a mixing boil set over a pot of barely simmering water:

I usually use Lindt chocolate with about 60-65% cacao, although this time I went up to 75%, because that's all the local grocery had at the moment.  Dove bittersweet chocolate also works well, as will any chocolate with a smooth, creamy texture when it melts in your mouth.

Remove the melted chocolate from the heat and let it cool until it's lukewarm.  Then take your metal mixing bowl out of the fridge, pour in the heavy cream or whipping cream, and beat the cream with an electric mixer or by hand until it's nicely whipped.

Use a rubber spatula to incorporate the whipped cream into the chocolate.  Start with one fairly generous dollop of cream to lighten the chocolate.  If you start with too much whipped cream, the chocolate will solidify, and you'll end up with flecks of chocolate suspended in your cream.  But if that happens, don't worry--your filling will still be perfectly tasty, with a little added texture as well.

Gradually incorporate the rest of the whipped cream:

Almost there...

Time for a break, and some finger-licking goodness.
Now you're ready to start putting the torte together.   Take a bread knife and split your chestnut almond cake in half horizontally:

Can you see the large cracks in the top half?

Don't worry if your two layers aren't the same thickness, or if one of them falls apart a bit--that's what glaze and icing are for.  Honestly, this recipe is pretty forgiving, even if it seems complicated.

Use your rubber spatula to spread the chocolate whipped cream filling on the bottom half of your torte:

In progress...
Now, place the top half of the torte over the filling layer:

I had a bit of a disaster, and the top broke into about half a dozen pieces when I tried to pick it up.  But it really didn't make a difference, and it will make even less of a difference with the final steps.

Step 3: Apricot glaze  

The apricot glaze is simplicity itself.  Take about half a cup of apricot jam, add 2-3 Tbs. rum if desired, and heat it in a pot over medium low.  When the jam starts bubbling, start stirring.  When it thickens, the glaze is ready:

Immediately pour the hot glaze onto your torte and spread it evenly over the top with a spatula:

Remember the broken top layer?  Now you can't see the cracks at all.

Step 4: Icing and finishing

For the icing, melt 4 oz. chocolate in a double boiler.  Now here's the weird part: add 3-4 Tbs. water (or 6-8 Tbs., as in Reich's original recipe) to the melted chocolate.  The results will look terrible, and you'll be certain you've ruined the chocolate, but stir the water in until the mixture has an even consistency.  Then add 1-2 Tbs. butter, and mix until the butter is thoroughly incorporated.

I confess that the resulting icing this time around looks grainier than usual, perhaps because of the 75% cacao chocolate?  It does taste smooth, and when I've made this icing in the past, it's had a smoother appearance as well, especially after it's had time to cool and harden.  I confess that the addition of water strikes me as a pretty odd step, but the technique comes from Reich's mother, who apparently used it successfully.  If you don't want to take chances, you can just add 6-8 Tbs. of butter to the melted chocolate and go with a much richer option, but I always thought there was already enough chocolate and cream to do the full butter topping.

Now things get messy, so at this point, I always put the torte on top of a small plate, to provide a little extra height to work with.  Spread the icing on the top and sides of the torte:

If you take the more watery option and use the full 6-8 Tbs. of water, you will have a much runnier icing.  You will be able to spread it across the top, but you will have to settle for letting it more or less run down the sides of the torte.  That icing will harden nicely, however, so don't worry that you're going to end up with a soupy mess on top.

At this point, you can consider yourself done.  I didn't like how my icing looked, though, so I decided to take a few more steps.  First, since the icing was on the bitter side (again, thanks to the 75% cacao chocolate that I used), I used a sieve to sift powdered sugar on top of the torte.  The powdered sugar appeared pretty messy, but I knew it would soak into the icing over time.

For the finish, I toasted some almond flour in a dry saute pan and then let it cool before sieving it on top of the torte and patting it onto the sides:

If your icing looks good, other more minimalist finishes include sprinkling toasted almond flour, toasted and coarsely chopped almonds, or if you thought ahead, a bit of saved chestnut puree around the outer edges of the torte, or taking a whole chestnut and placing it in the center.

I thought my torte still looked messy (the almond flour and chocolate icing all over the cutting board didn't help), and I happened to have some whole almonds in the kitchen, so I toasted a few in the saute pan and ringed them around the edges.  Voila!  Here is the finished chestnut almond torte:

Bon appetit (or perhaps I should say, Guten Appetit), and happy baking!

Friday, July 26, 2013

With apologies to William Carlos Williams

This is just to say

I have eaten
the fig
that was ripening
on the tree

and which
you were probably
for breakfast
Forgive me
It was delicious
So tender and
So sweet 

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Summertime in Vancouver

I haven't felt too much like blogging lately--partly, there's that day job that I call my career, but it's also so much easier to sit back and enjoy the summer.  I recently saw an article in the Los Angeles Times that named Seattle as the U.S. city with the coolest, most comfortable summer weather, with Portland and San Francisco as second and third.  Had the survey included Canada, surely Vancouver would have tied for first, since we basically enjoy the same weather as Seattle.  Summer 2013 is turning out to be particularly gorgeous.  Some years (e.g., 2011 and 2012) the weather hardly warms up until August, but this year we've had plenty of sun and truly glorious weather since May.  It all makes up for the grey gloom the rest of the year.

As a result, all of the fruit is ripening earlier than usual.  I've already started picking the blackberries down the alleyway at least a week or two earlier than usual.  My Shiro plums also look as if they'll be ready soon, whereas last year, I didn't pick most of them until the second half of August.

Here's how some of them looked this morning:

How many did you see in the photo?   I counted more than two dozen.  We're not looking at the crazy bumper crop that we had last year, but altogether, I think there are around 100-200 plums ripening.

Our brown turkey fig tree, which we planted three or four years ago, is also doing well.  I face a dilemma with the fig in this picture:

To pick or not to pick?
Is it ready yet?  It feels soft enough to eat, but it doesn't have much color yet.  But if I wait too long, the crows could get it.  I might pick it this evening.

Behind the fig tree, our butterfly bush is also in full bloom:

We used to have two butterfly bushes, but they were too close together, and also too crowded next to the fig tree and the lilac bush, so I dug one of them out a few weeks ago.  In Vancouver, the standard lot is about 4000 square feet, much smaller than what's typical in, say, the States, so houses are built with small footprints, and yards are little patches of heaven.  When DH and I moved here, our house had nothing but lawn, so we put in all of the plants ourselves.  Neither of us actually knows anything about gardening, and we didn't take future growth into account very carefully--after all, everything looked so puny when we planted it!  Alas, we have a cedar tree that will be next to go, before it takes down our telephone and cable lines.

Hope all of you in the northern hemisphere are also enjoying a wonderful summer, wherever you may be.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Finished: "Delft Blue"

Here's my finished lattice quilt:

I actually got it done a couple of weeks ago,  but I didn't get the hanging sleeve and label on until today.  The main fabrics come from Moda's "Kasuri" line, which is based on traditional Japanese fabric designs.  The quilt reminds me of 17th-century Dutch blue-and-white porcelains, which tried to imitate Chinese pottery designs, but ended up looking rather different.  Hence the quilt's title: "Delft Blue."

As I've mentioned before, my lattice quilts are based on a simple pieced block that consists of a single square cut in half both ways and interspersed with crossed strips, as in the block at the very center:

I wrote earlier that I developed the block independently, but the pattern was so basic that I couldn't imagine that it had never been done before.  More recently, I saw another quilt--iquiltforfun's wonderful Daiwabo quilt--made from the very same block.  I have yet to see anyone use the block the way I have, however, to produce the illusion of the interwoven strips.  In the case of "Delft Blue," the pieced "diamond in a square" background adds an additional visual element.  I've thought since that if I used a similar design, but with very light fabrics at the center and darker fabrics towards the edges, I might get more of an illusion of depth in the background.  Something to ponder in another lattice quilt, although not the next one, for which I already have a different plan in mind.

Here's one final detail shot, which shows the straight finish on the bottom left corner: