Monday, January 18, 2010

Banana Tart? Surprise!

I admitted that I was skeptical when I saw Helen's, the tartlette, post of this banana tartlettes. First, I am not fond of bananas. My brother grossed me out with it when I was little, and I have not yet recovered from it. Second, banana and frangipane just don't seem right together. But, I do trust Helen's baking instinct. And, kids and husband like banana stuff. And, I really like frangipane cream. And, most of all, I love going against the current, even when it is my own will. 

I basically followed her recipe. (Click on "banana tartlettes" for the link.) I will only record my changes here:

  • I don't have 3" cake rings, so I used 8" cake ring. Half of her sable recipe is enough for the 8" tart, and I used it all. I baked the crust with the ring at 350F for 20 minutes, or watch for the golden color. I did prick the shell before baking. No pie weight is needed if the dough is chilled properly before baking.
  • I used 65 g of almond and 65 g of hazel nuts. (I have a coffee grinder specifically designated to nut grinding. Works great when making frangipane or macarons.) The res ingredients were the same as hers. This 8" tart was baked longer than the 3" tartlettes, at 40 minutes or until golden brown. 
  • I always have my own caramel sauce in hand, so I didn't use Helen's. Mine is basically the same as Rose Levy Beranbaum's. I will post it later.

Husband and I had the tart for dessert on Saturday. I only put sliced banana on his piece. He took the first bite while I waited anxiously for his comments. He nodded and quietly consumed another bite. That's it! I can't wait any longer, so I took one tiny bite myself, with banana. My eyes grew big and my jaw dropped. I couldn't believe how well the banana, nutty tart, caramel sauce, and the ice cream went together yet you could taste the individual character subtly. It brought a clean but not heavy sensation to the palette. I was much surprised that I didn't mind the banana at all! I have been making desserts for many years and have grew picky on tasting desserts, and I am very pleased by this one. Husband said, "this one has climbed quickly to the top of my favorite." I am thrilled because he is the toughest critic I have to go pass. 

Thanks again for Helen's creation! I am glad that I again challenged my own weak spot. The result is beyond victory. Ha!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

A Friend to Grow Old With!

April and I have known each other for 22 years now. In all these years, we only had one year living in the same city. The rest of the time, we are separated by the Pacific Ocean. It's amazing how friendship works sometime. That one year bonded us through the time and distance. Words are not necessary or enough for all the stories and understanding between us. I hold her dearly to my heart.

I never baked anything in my life before coming to the United States. I didn't discover my passion for baking and cooking until then. And, it's all due to pure survival. I love food, and I love sweets, and I mostly love food from my home land. I couldn't find things close to that in US. You see, I had no choice than to make my own. April has always been into baking, among other creative things. I got a few starter's recipe books from a couple of lovely friends, then April became, and remains to be, my major mentor on my baking journey. We not only discuss baking together, but also enjoy eating food together whenever we have opportunities. One of my most favorite things to do when visiting home is to spend a day with her. And one of the highlights of our day is eating. You will not believe how much this little lady can eat. This time back in Taipei, I was again reminded and awed by her strength of eating. Come on, we are in our 40's, and I honestly can not believe that she can still put in so much food like she used to. Even back then, she ate much more than average girls, or maybe even guys. (This is a compliment for her. Trust me!) 

She complained that my schedule was too full. Well, the truth is that her schedule was not better than mine. We started our day with little precious caneles. I had heard so much about them before coming home. April has mastered making them. The crusty caramelized outside with the moist and soft inside made perfect harmony. Unfortunately, each copper cannele mold costs US$20. I will make sure to put ten of them on my Christmas wish list this year. 

Our first stop was Smith&Hsu, a tea and English scone place. The variety of tea selections was quite impressive.

We picked black caramel. Surprisingly, it was quite good. However, the scones were disappointing. They were doughy, more like biscuits to me than scones. The lemon curd that came with the scone was not bad, though.

Doesn't this place look like a fashion shop? Well, it's not. It's Salon De The de Joel Robuchon, Taipei. The color choice is something, but it's not for me. We carried out two pastries to try.

This is another famous bakery in the basement of this expensive department store

We finally found a place to sit down and shove in the two delicate pastries we got from Robuchon. 

This guy here was incredible. It's too complicated for me to describe it, but the layers of creations were impressively clear. I loved this one.

By now, I had been eating sweets after sweets. And it was close to 2 o'clock in the afternoon. I needed salty food. She took me to a small neighborhood noodle shop. There are many cozy eateries like this in the city. I love the ease and warmth this little place presents to their customers, something more than just food. The noodles and wonton soup hit the spot on a wet day for us.

More food? That's right! Remember? I was out with April! Honesty, all I could do at this point was to enjoy my coffee, have half of the tart, and give up! I could not possibly put anything more in my stomach!

One day was not enough! Not enough time to talk and not enough room in my stomach. Thankfully, I know there will be next time. I love my old friend and look forward to another 22 years to grow older with her. Thank you, my dear April. 

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Home Sweet Home! Which one?

Remember the snow pictures in my last post? Well, we are back to it, after spending 3 weeks at my home land with the weather average 50-60 F above what we have here. We had a lot of raining and cloudy days while there, but it was bearable for us mid-westerners. We came back to the snowy landscape on New Year's Day. It was bittersweet for me, but it was definitely sweeter for husband and children. They were coming home, you see. As for me, the older I get, the more I long to go home, where I came from. 

I have been living in the mid-west for more than 20 years now. I never thought I would have settled here, but I am glad I did. I met my dear husband here.  And, it is a wonderful place to raise a family and a beautiful place in the summer and fall. Winter is too long, and spring can be messy. Husband loves the 4 seasons here, though. Kids love the snow. This time visiting Taiwan, I enjoyed it much more than the past. Kids are old enough to enjoy every minute with us. We don't have to drag diaper bags and stroller with us everywhere we go and worry about the sleeping pattern and schedules. It's just so much easier. We had a lot of fun. And of course, we had a lot of good food and enjoyed every bite of it. You can't find a place more convenient than Taipei to find all kinds of food. I will have to write another post about it. 

The most memorable thing we did this time was taking a trip to the east part of Taiwan. I have forgot the magnificent beauty of the coast, the gorges, and the rift valley. Or, I should say that I really didn't appreciate it so much until now. We will go back to visit HuaLien and TaiDong again.

Even on a cloudy and windy day, we were awed by the clean blue color of the Pacific water, ...

... and the wave was definitely worth chasing. 

After leaving HuaLien, we took the train heading south to TaiDong. These ladies were working hard in the early morning at one tea farm near our B&B picking the latest winter crop.

Guess what this is? It's passion fruit! We stopped at this vegetable and fruit farm on our second day in TaiDong while on a bike trail. The fresh picked passion fruit and strawberry were mouthwatering. 

Ran into workers harvesting bananas on our afternoon walk. They were so friendly and picked some yellow (ripe) bananas from the tree for us to try. We learned that bananas are picked while still green, then go through the ripening process in the warehouse before going to the markets. This drying process will turn the bananas yellow and enhance their flavors. Truly, the fresh picked ones they had us tried were not remarkably better than the store bought ones.

Look at this little girl, didn't want to follow us on the "normal" path then had to find an unusual way to come back. So typical of her. :)

I just can't get over with the awesome views of the coast line. 

There was the husband hanging on the lava rock. We had an adventurous day at this park. No damage occurred to the park (or the husband!)

After three short days, we packed our hearts with wonderful people and warm memories and headed back to Taipei on the train.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Merry White Christmas!


Isn't this beautiful! The upper mid-west had a huge snow storm starting Tuesday to Wednesday. It dumped about 18 inches heavy snow in our yard and landscape. This storm was the 2nd biggest I have seen in the 20 years here. It made a scene, and truly a beautiful scene. This picture is taken about 1/2 mile down the road from my house. Took the picture on the home from dropping kids at school. I have to mention, the temperature is about 5 F, but the sun is making every shining and warm. I love it.

Here are kids cleaning snow on Wednesday morning. It took us more than 2 hours in the morning and husband an hour in the afternoon to clear the drive way and side walk. Nobody went anywhere that day. Kids were so joyous of the snow. They played and built forts. Meimei always hides treats in hers so Jack, our black lab, can go find them. 

We are celebrating dear son's 14th birthday today. It's been a hectic week for all of us, finishing up things before our big trip. Yes, we are leaving tomorrow to visit my home city for 3 weeks!!! It's been 4 years for son and husband. Meimei and I were there 2 years ago. My mom has been asking a couple of weeks ago if I were done packing. Are you kidding? I just finished all the laundry this morning and started the packing process. Didn't realize how much stuff I am bringing home until they were all laid out in front of me. That's okay, though. Husband is at work; kids are at school; bird is at the sitter; I was ready to go. I have pretty much got it done. I still need to drop off Jack the dog at the friend and stop by the library to get books for kids. Whew! Then, we can have a good birthday dinner with kids. I didn't make cakes for him this year, but he knows that we will have many different kinds of cakes when we get to Taipei. 

Kids really miss not having a Christmas tree this year since we are traveling. Son has been cutting family tree since he was 11, and we are very proud of him stepping up for the role. Meimei is still a little girl, well she is only 11, and loves decorating the tree and surprises. We will be celebrating the Savior's birth on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. It has a lot of meaning to me. I didn't have time to make much Christmas cookies or treats, but I did make a batch of pecan tassies. This little yumminess has become part of our Christmas traditions for many years. This recipe is originated by Pampered Chef, but I modified it. If I ever get a chance to blog on my vacation, I'll add the recipe.

Merry Christmas to everyone. We shall be back on the New Year Day!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Happy Birthday to Me!

Can't believe it's October already. What happened to September? Oh yes, I need to post something about Chinese Moon Festival and all the pastries I made this year. I had a good birthday this year. Nothing loud, but it was so cozy. Dear husband, and kids in a small portion, gave me the gift I wanted - a Staub 6.5 quart round "La Cocotte"! I used it right away to make the Chinese beef stew for noodle as my, and the rest of the family's, favorite birthday dinner. 

The cake was the black and white cake from Dorie Greenspan's "Baking: From My Home to Yours". I decorated it my way. I made some changes to make it less sweet. Kids loved it, but husband and I still thought the sugar part can be toned down more. 

I need to come back here more often. We picked about 10 pounds of apples last weekend, and I am already make different apple treats. I'll leave it for the next post. 

Celebrate another year with love, joy, and hope!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

What happened to the summer?!

I just can't believe my last post was dated back in May. Yes, yes, I thought I could blog more in the summer. Here I am, almost the end of the summer, and kids start school in a week, I just realized that I have not posted once in the past 3 months. Sorry. Have to keep this one short, too.

(The picture on the top was taken at Chicago's downtown Millennium Park. I call it "The Helmet!")

Lots of tart making this summer. Here is one of my creations, Mango tart with Almond cream base and pastry cream filling. Very good combination, to my surprise, and summery taste. Love it! I also made several fruit tarts, pear tarts, and Tirimisu tarts for various occasions and orders. It's a tart summer! 

Have to go now. Will come back soon for regular, well more regular, posting later. Summer in the upper Midwest is going away fast. We are taking in as much as we can! 

Friday, May 8, 2009

One Macaron, Two Macaron, Three Macaron NUTS

The first time I ever heard of "macaron" was about 3 years ago. Lots bloggers in my home country were crazily talking about it. You see, curiosity usually doesn't long to get me. I started looking into more and more information about it. If you google the word "macaron" today, you get tons of search results. Some say it's cookie, while the others claim its identity as family of candies. You pick which to believe. My first macaron was 2 years ago at an upscaled bakery while visiting my home country. The impression was pretty downscaled, I have to say. All I can remember about that macaron was that it made my teeth ached. WAY TOO SWEET! Due to that experience, I was determined to make good macarons. I started looking for recipes and compared the sugar amount, AND I FOUND THEM!

As you can tell, it took me about 2 years of investigating these little "things" to take my own first step. Helen the tartelette and Aran the Cannelle are my mentors on the macaron path. I have read almost all their posts regarding macarons. It really helps, trust me, to get yourself familiar with the techniques by reading before doing. Both of these ladies are amazing. They are well experienced but yet very kind to share what they know. They set good examples for me. So, this post is a tribute to them.

I made the chocolate macarons in Aron's blog for my macaron debute about 3 months ago. It was a total success. I filled them with bittersweet chocolate ganache, and it was the most favorite among family and friends. Since then, I have made Aran's pistachio macarons with white chocolate grapefruit ganache, Aran's Chocolate Macarons with salty peanut butter filling, Helen's opera macarons, and many different kinds of butter cream, ganache, and my own caramel sauce to go with different macaron shells. It was so much fun, almost like a game. Every time I made a combination, it became the favorite among the testers. Funny! 

Helen's recent post on strawberry macarons really caught my eyes. I like new things and changes. So, I made them right away. The first two pictures are them. I promised they are NOT chocolate macarons. I don't have any pink powder color, so I used burgundy. It came out a bit too dark. And, it took me 2 hours in 250F oven to dry those sliced strawberries. Argh! That's the only downside for these tasty macarons. I made some butter cream wtih egg yolks, instead of egg whites. I mixed half a pod of vanilla beans in, and it was perfect! 

I confess that I don't always follow the recipes to the exact. It is fine to add my own touch and baking experience to the stuff. I don't change too much when I follow Helen's and Aran's macaron recipes. Well, I am known as a "more-or-less" cook/baker. As long as you don't drift too far off, I think it's not harmful. (Please don't my words for it, if you don't agree.) Making macarons are not difficult, but it's tricky. Here are some my opinions:

- mastering meringue is the first and most important task. I have been making chiffon and sponge cakes for many years, and I LOVE working with egg whites. This experience came very handy making macarons. I don't mind making Italian meringue. But I think for small batches macarons, French meringue is the easiest. AND, in my opinion, French meringue macarons are less sweet than Italian meringue ones. What you need to look for is the finish meringue should have the texture of the make-up sponge ladies use for putting the foundations on their face. You almost can not see the air bubbles. It should not look at the scrubbing sponge you use to wash dishes. You want your meringue looks so welcoming, so shining, and so soft that you want to put your face on it. Got the idea? One big lesson about whipping egg whites I learned from April is to finish the meringue in a slow speed with the electric mixer. This is what I do sometimes. Once the whites are whipped to the full body, take the bowl off the machine and whip it by hand. It will truly stabilize your egg white.

- I very much appreciate Helen's "Macarons 101". She carefully explained all the details her French meringue macarons. I love it when she wrote "... starting to fold vigorously and rather fast at 
first, .." Woo, being vigorous is one of my strengths. So I followed, and that gave me my first batch of macarons successfully. 

- Aged egg whites in room temperature works well for me, so I always make sure separate the whites 2-3 days beforehand, leave in the refrigerator, then let it sit in room temperature for 24 hours. I usually put it in my basement where is cooler than my ground level kitchen temperature. 

- Drying process after piping is very important. The one time my macarons came out flopped was when I hurried them into the oven. Of course, the sitting time has a lot to do with the humidity of the environment. I made most of mine in the winter season, and we always had heater going. House humidity was low, so one hour was sufficient. 

- I started grinding nuts using my coffee grinder. It really saves money. I bought a pound of blanched almond flours from the organic food section in my local grocery store. It was $10. The slivered almond is only half of that price per pound. I can do the grinding myself, and it doesn't cost much!

Oh yes, the homemade caramel sauce is awesome. I didn't like store bought caramel at all until I started making my own. The recipe is from Rose Levy Beranbaum's The Pie and Pastry Bible. By the way, that book is educational. I have been using it for pies and tarts since I got it few years ago.