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Thursday, December 25, 2014

A cake fit for a Queen

     Birthdays, I find, should always be about receiving pleasure.  The ultimate pleasure.  To me, nothing brings more pleasure than chocolate, especially when it is the best, most refined European chocolate made into a dense, unique, cake.  It is the philosophy of one of New York’s best chocolatiers, Maribel Liberman. 

     Liberman, a native of Honduras, understands good chocolate when she tastes it.  She owns an exquisite store in New York City called MarieBelle Chocolatier.  And as someone who understands the importance of a good piece of chocolate, she also finds that “life is all about the pleasure and happiness we find in food, art and beauty”.

     Until I became a fan of all things French, I couldn’t picture beauty as being present in food.  The French excel at this.  Everything from the packaging to the way edibles are presented, the thought placed in creating and enjoying meals, the quality of the ingredients, and the sharing of those experiences is conducive to beauty.  Beauty inspires art, and chocolate was the venue, this birthday when I turned 45, for that inspiration.

     The treat for my birthday was a Marie Antoinette Vintage Truffle Cake, made by this chocolate house that also creates artfully illustrated chocolates, raw cacao confisseries, signature ganaches and decadent hot chocolate mixes.

     I ordered the cake through Dean &Deluca, but it is also available through the company’s website.  The cake honors Queen Marie Antoinette of France, who adored the chocolate pastilles that then chemist to the French Crown, Debauve & Gallais, created for her so she could swallow unpleasant tasting medicines.  Marie Antoinette adored chocolate, and this cake, which comes packaged inside a box simulating an ancient book, includes a poem in her honor, and her chocolate:


She stares with puzzle at her treasure book
She can’t help but wonder
What the story is all about inside
She flips the cover
And to her surprise:
A mysterious dark slab
With a rich golden chandelier
Simulating the entrance of a Palace
How amazing!!!
He contemplated her with joy
As she closed her eyes as if
She was going into a trance
He was the man she loved
But at that moment
He took a second place
People warned her that one
Becomes a prisoner of obsession
She held the slab and took a first bite
Melting cream in her mouth she screamed
                                    OH… CHOCOLAT!!


     Indeed, the Marie Antoinette Vintage Truffle Cake is like biting into a truffle.  It is quite small, about 6.5” by 4.5”, but it compensates in richness.  The truffle cream chocolate lies on top of crisp chocolate wafers, so when one bites into it, there is also a certain crunch.  It is decorated with the image of an antique chandelier, faintly showing out of a sprinkle of gold glitter, and to my surprise, it did not fade throughout the life of the cake.

     I recommend a rich, dark shot of Italian espresso to accompany this luscious dessert.  And of course, a trip to this chocolatier is de rigueur during a visit to New York City.



      After the cake is consumed (which will not take long, believe me), the simulated case can be used for storage of cherished secrets – love notes, valentines, etc.


A small piece with a cup of strong espresso is all this cake needs.  It should be cut in triangles as shown here.
You will get 8 portions.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Drinks for a good cause

     The holidays offer the perfect excuse to have nice drinks, and as many of them as possible! This year I was able to get my hands on some supreme quality vodka, and it came with a good cause too.  Snow Leopard Vodka is the contribution of entrepreneur and philanthropist Stephen Sparrow, who after learning of the challenges of the communities in the area the snow leopard inhabits and the danger of extinction of the species, came up with the idea of this beverage.

     The snow leopard (panthera uncia) is the least known of the big cats.  Personally, I find its coat the most beautiful – a white, mushy coat with black markings.  It has an unusually long tail, which serves him well to prowl in the mountains.  These animals are loners, getting together only during the breeding season in winter.  They inhabit the highest mountains in the world – the Tibetan plateau throughout Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nepal.  The species is on the critically endangered list due to deforestation and black market trafficking with none other than China.  Thanks to people like Sparrow and the Snow Leopard Trust, the species may have a chance.


© 2014 Snow Leopard vodka
      The Snow Leopard vodka is produced in Poland.  It comes in a beautifully designed bottle with a painted picture of a snow leopard.  The drink is distilled 6 times directly from the ancient grain of spelt and has a superbly clean taste, round and creamy.  It makes for a great base for cocktails.  Not surprisingly it has won numerous awards.  Here are two of my favorite recipes.

Appletini (the best version you’ve EVER had)

Ingredients:
  • 3oz. Snow Leopard vodka
  • 2oz. Schönauer Apfel schnapps
  • 1/2 oz. freshly squeezed lemon juice
Preparation:

      Shake all ingredients with ice in a shaker and pour into a chilled martini glass.  Garnish with an apple slice pierced with a cinnamon stick.




Snow Kitten
     This is a recipe created by the bartenders at the Light Bar, in London’s modern St. Martin’s Lane Hotel.  A place that offers cocktails with a European twist, using ingredients like Elderflower liqueurs, champagne and lychee juice.  It is worth the work in finding the ingredients.

Ingredients:

  • 2oz. Snow Leopard vodka
  • 12 blueberries
  • 2 to 5 bar spoons of damson plum preserves
  • 2 bar spoons of honey
  • 1/4 oz lemon juice
Preparation:

     Muddle the blueberries.  Add the rest of the ingredients and stir, then shake with ice and strain into a Martini glass.  Garnish with blueberries on a stirrer.


     Keep in mind that when you purchase a bottle of Snow Leopard vodka, 15% of the cost goes to the species conservation.  The company aims to sell 100,000.00 bottles a year.  That would provide about $450,000.00 towards conservation.  An amazing effort and also utterly delicious.

Monday, December 1, 2014

A cozy Thanksgiving

     Thanksgiving is the most celebrated holiday in the American calendar.  That is because mostly every family who lives in the United States participates in the holiday in some way, regardless of religion or race. 

     But what is the essence of Thanksgiving?  Beyond the eating and the shopping, it is the foremost way to celebrate the harvest, and send hopes into the void for a future bounty one.  I like this latter idea of Thanksgiving.  Since I moved to Florida, over 20 years ago now, I especially enjoy the Autumn.  Once the last days of August hits I seem to become alive, and the smells of the new season come alive in my kitchen as well.

     From the entertaining point of view, it is the ideal time of year.  The fruits of the harvest invite a varied sort of cooking, and the chillier weather makes for wonderful get-togethers and cozy moments.

     This year I decided to by-pass the ubiquitous turkey and made an Argentinian classic – carbonada.  This version is by Chef Guillermo Calabrese, one of Buenos Aires top chefs, who started his career at the famous Gato Dumas Restaurant in Recoleta.  I remember eating at this trendy restaurant in the 90’s.  It was a mixture of refined Argentine specialties with a touch of French cuisine, in an ambiance that was stylish without being presumptuous. 

     The carbonada is a fulfilling dish for a cold day, not unlike the weather we were lucky to have for Thanksgiving.  It is served inside an acorn squash, making for a beautiful presentation.  Although it takes some time to prepare, it beats the long hours of the turkey and proves for a dish full of the typical flavours of Fall for which you will be remembered.


Argentine Carbonada in acorn squash:

Ingredients for 4 servings:

  • 4 small acorn squash (about 6” in diameter)
  • 4oz unsalted butter
  • 3oz sugar
  • ¾ cup milk
  • 3 small corn stalks
  • Corn oil, as needed
  • 12oz plain rice
  • 1 medium yellow onion
  • 2 small white onions
  • 3 green onions
  • 1 red pepper, chopped
  • 1pd veal, cut in cubes
  • 1 can tomatoes
  • 3.5oz white wine
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 5 oz veal stock
  • 3.5 oz dried apricots
  • 1 Tbsp sugar
  • ½ Tbsp cumin
  • 2 bay leaves
  • ½ Tbsp sweet paprika
  • ¼ grated goat cheese
  • More salt and pepper to taste

Preparation:

     Wash and dry the acorn squashes.  Cut the tops, which will be used as covers, clean and remove the seeds, and cut small incisions on the inside with a knife. 

     Coat the insides of the squashes with softened butter, dust with sugar and bathe with a bit of milk.  Place on an oven plaque and bake at 380F for 25 minutes.  Check halfway to ensure the squashes are not disintegrating.  They should only be partially cooked at this point.

     Cut the corn in smaller pieces, blanche and reserve.  In a separate saucepan add about 2 Tbsp of corn oil and sauté the rice no longer than 3 minutes.  Season with salt and pepper and reserve.

     In another saucepan with 2 more Tbsp oil sauté the onions, previously chopped.  Add the pepper, the meat (make sure you clean all the fat) and brown.  Add the tomatoes and deglaze with the wine.  Season and cook until the alcohol evaporates.

     Add the rice, the veal stock, dried apricots and season with sugar, cumin, bay leaves and paprika.  Cook for 15 minutes on high.  Fill the squashes with this stew and bake for another 25 minutes at 380F.  Sprinkle with a nice grated goat cheese.  I chose a Spanish one from La Mancha, flavored with paprika, which you can buy HERE.  It mimicked the flavor of the pieces beautifully.  Serve with corn cobs on the side.


A tablescape inspired by the colours of Autumn
      After such a nice main course, the dessert had to be just as memorable.  And maybe a bit more patriotic.  I find nothing more authentically American than cheesecake.  Thanks to the Martha Stewart magazine, I became aware of a uniquely crafted maple syrup, infused with Tahitian vanilla and Egyptian chamomile.  As soon as I saw the recipe, I ordered it immediately.

     This is a very rich, creamy cheesecake, ideal to have with some strong Earl Gray tea.

Maple-Walnut cheesecake:

Ingredients for 8 to 12 servings:

            Crust:
·         9 Graham crackers
·         ¾ cup black walnuts
·         1/3 cup packed light brown sugar
·         4 Tbsp melted unsalted butter
·         Pinch of fresh nutmeg
·         Pinch of salt, ideally Himalayan pink salt
Filling:
·         Four 8oz packages of cream cheese, at room temperature
·         ¾ Noble Tonic 02 Maple syrup, available HERE
·         ½ cup granulated sugar
·         4 large eggs
·         3 Tbsp all-purpose flour
·         ½ cup heavy cream
·         1 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
·         ¼ tsp maple extract

Preparation:

     Fill a roasting pan halfway with water and set on a rack in the lower third of the oven (this will ensure a very moist environment for the cheesecake to cook into); position another rack in the middle and pre-heat to 350F.  Wrap the outside (bottom and side) of a 9” springform pan with foil.

     To make the crust, pulse the Graham crackers in a food processor a few times until crushed.  Add the walnuts and brown sugar and continue pulsing until finely ground.  Add the melted butter, nutmeg and salt and pulse to combine.  Press into the bottom and about 1” up the side of the prepared pan.  Bake until the crust is golden, about 10’.  Transfer to a rack and let cool completely.

     For the filling, beat the cream cheese in a stand mixer with the paddle attachment on medium speed until nearly smooth, about 1’.  Add the maple syrup and granulated sugar and beat until smooth, about 2’ more.  Add the eggs, one at a time, beating after each addition.  Increase the speed to medium high and beat in the flour, heavy cream, lemon juice and maple extract until the filling is smooth and silky, about 1’.

     Pour the filling into the cooled crust.  Transfer the cheesecake to the oven, placing it on the middle rack, directly over the water bath.  Bake until golden and set around the edge but still jiggly in the center, about 45’ to 1 hour.  Transfer to a rack and let cool to room temperature, then cover and refrigerate until cold and set, preferably overnight.  Let the cheesecake sit at room temperature 20”, the run a thin knife around the edge and remove the springform pan.  Serve and enjoy!