April 19, 2014

How to Make Chocolate Easter Eggs

Contrary to popular belief, you do not need training at the French Laundry or an advanced culinary degree to succeed at making chocolate candies. You simply need to learn a few techniques and have some patience. Here are my step-by-step instructions to easily create chocolate Easter eggs from scratch.

Chocolate Ganache Filled Easter Eggs

What you need:
One bar of dark chocolate (for the chocolate coating)
Chocolate mold
Pastry brush
Bain-marie (or glass bowl that fits over a saucepan)

Maison du Chocolat recipe for chocolate ganache filling:
6 1/2 ounces of chocolate (1/2 dark and 1/2 milk) in pieces
1/2 cup of heavy cream
1/2 vanilla bean (sliced down the middle)

You will need a mold for chocolates and a pastry brush:

Step 1: Break chocolate bar up into pieces:

Step 2: Melt half of the chocolate bar pieces using a "bain-marie."

Step 3: Take melted chocolate off the bain-marie; stir in the rest of chocolate bar pieces.

Step 4: Stir until the hard chocolate pieces become incorporated in the melted chocolate.

Step 5: "Paint" the melted chocolate onto the chocolate mold using the pastry brush.

Step 6: Allow the chocolate to cool and harden (about two hours).
The chocolate will have a matte appearance when it's ready.

Step 7: First step to make the ganache filling: Place vanilla bean and cream in a saucepan over medium heat. Allow it to boil for a minute.

Step 8: Strain the vanilla bean from the heat milk.

Step 9: Add the chocolate pieces to the warm milk.

Step 10: Stir the chocolate into the milk using a wooden spoon.

Step 11: Keep stirring until the chocolate is completely melted. Then allow to cool off. Place in the refrigerator until ganache is solid.

Step 12: Fill the chocolate molds with the ganache.

Step 13: Make sure that each mold is filled to the brim but not overflowing. Otherwise the ganache will leak out of the candies.

Step 14: Melt the remaining chocolate from the chocolate bar. Then smear the melted chocolate on top of the ganache.

Step 15: Allow the melted chocolate coating to harden. The chocolate coating will go from shiny to matte once it is ready.

Step 15: Place chocolate mold in the refrigerator for 30 minutes to one hour. Then remove the chocolate pieces by inverting the mold.

Voila! Beautiful handcrafted chocolates! Enjoy!

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Copyright © 2014, Lisa Alexander. All rights reserved.

April 15, 2014

The Hunt for Gourmet Easter Eggs...

White Chocolate Rabbit Driving Race Car from Woodhouse Chocolates

Scouring the land of artisan chocolates is no easy task. One must stop to sample a candy wherever one appears to have potential. I would have sent my assistant (the cute little bunny in a race car) however I reminded myself of the gravity of this mission, the importance of bringing the world's attention to the best Easter eggs. Someone serious had to do the job, and it might as well be me!

The criteria for selecting these gourmet Easter eggs was rigorous:
1.) Artisan made (each piece is handcrafted)
2.) Superior-quality chocolate 
3.) Stylish decoration resembling a real egg

These three qualifying requirements narrowed the list down quite quickly. Here are the results of the best artisan chocolate Easter eggs that can be found in the SF Bay Area.

1.) Woodhouse Chocolates (Handmade in the Napa Valley)  
1367 Main Street, Saint Helena, CA (800) 966-3468
Order by Next Day and 2nd Day shipping for Easter delivery.
Easter gift box of 6 Robin's Eggs includes milk chocolates filled with brown butter ganache, pastel decor. ($12.00)

2.) Christopher Elbow Chocolates (Handmade in Kansas City)
Local retail boutique: 401 Hayes Street, San Francisco
Order online by April 15th or 16th for Easter delivery. 
Gift box of Easter egg chocolates includes 9 pieces: Fleur de Sel Caramel, Peanut Praline, Raspberry Caramel, Lavender Caramel, Fresh Lemon, Passion Fruit Caramel, Dark Milk Ganache, Citrus Caramel and Coconut. ($24.00)

3.) Chocolat Moderne (Handmade in New York, NY)
Available at Bi-Rite Market, 3639 18th Street, San Francisco
Order online from Chocolate Modern by 2nd-Day or Overnight delivery.
Easter gift box of hand-painted chocolate "Fauverge Eggs" in three flavors: Dark Raspberry Ganache, Dark Venezuelan Ganache, Sea Salt Caramel. ($29.00)

Stay tuned for the next post: How to make chocolate Easter eggs from scratch. You just need this special candy mold.

Please share your comments. To post a comment, click on the title of this post and scroll down to the bottom of the page. Look for the wording "Post a Comment" in tiny pink font.

Copyright © 2014, Lisa Alexander. All rights reserved.

April 7, 2014

Haute Cake-Tour

{Review of la Chèvre d’Or Restaurant on the French Riviera}

To experience a piece of culinary heaven, you must visit the medieval hilltop village of Eze on the French Riviera. Wander through the town's narrow pedestrian paths and lush gardens overlooking the Mediterranean Sea until you find La Chèvre d'Or. The elegant two-starred Michelin restaurant is part of a prestigious Relais & Châteux property that is hidden in the winding maze of cobblestone streets.

Entrance to La Chèvre d'Or hotel

Discovering the restaurant, which is in an ancient building that was a 14th-century castle, takes you back to another era. Enter the unassuming doorway and walk up a flight of stairs to an elegantly understated dining room. The decor is bright and cheerful and not at all stuffy. You'll find tables covered with perfectly pressed white linens and walls covered with colorful contemporary art.

Elegant dining room at la Chèvre d’Or restaurant

As described by the Michelin Guide: “An institution amongst the eating establishments of the French Riviera, Le Château de la Chèvre d’Or combines the highest quality ingredients to produce sophisticated, fresh tasting cuisine served in a high class setting.” Almost every seat in the restaurant offers a gorgeous outlook onto the Saint Jean-Cap-Ferrat coastline! Luxuriate in the ambience as you're mesmerized by the scene of yachts sailing peacefully through the azure blue waters from Monaco to Beaulieu-sur-Mer. The good life doesn't get any better than this!

View of Saint Jean Cap-Ferrat coastline on the Côte d'Azur

The divine dessert, pictured below, is the masterpiece of the Chef de Pâtisserie Julien Dugourd. Exquisite layers of delicate genoise cake alternated with sublime vanilla-infused buttercream and raspberry preserves, covered in a translucent strawberry glaze, with a base of crisp wafer-thin butter cookie resting on a bed of vanilla-infused panna cotta

Gâteau aux Fraises et à la Menthe (Strawberry and Mint Layer Cake)

As if that weren’t enough, the dessert was finished with tiny buttons of meringue, fresh mint leaves and a flourish of pulled sugar decor. It might sound like an exaggeration to say that this one slice of cake was worth the 5,000-mile two-thousand-dollar trip across the world. However, the joy found in one bite compensated for every mile and every penny! 

Dessert "part deux" served with espresso after the meal on the terrace.

The Chèvre d'Or restaurant and hotel is my all-time favorite vacation destination in France. The restaurant offers an incomparable gastronomic experience in the most beautiful setting that you could ever imagine. I highly recommend it! Be sure to make a reservation: restaurant@chevredor.com

Chèvre d'Or terrace with a sensational view of the French Riviera's Cap-Ferrat coastline

Please share your comments. To post a comment, click on the title of this post and scroll down to the bottom of the page. Look for the wording "Post a Comment" in tiny pink font.

Copyright © 2014, Lisa Alexander. All rights reserved.

April 1, 2014

In Celebration of Baking Mistakes!

Channeling Groucho Marx and Julia Child on April Fool's Day!

Whoever said that baking is a precise art had it all wrong. If there were a Pastry Hall of Fame, an entire section would be devoted to the best baking disasters of all time. Three of the world's most beloved desserts were actually created by mistake—the result of a preparation error, a wrong ingredient or an oversight of one step in the process. These accidental recipes produced more scrumptious desserts than ever imagined.

So celebrate April Fool's Day by baking to your heart's content. No need to be so cautious in following the recipe. Your mess-up could become a masterpiece! 

1.) Chocolate Chip Cookies
This all-time favorite cookie is said to be the result of a baking mishap. As the story goes, the owner of Toll House Restaurant in Massachusetts, Ruth Wakefield was preparing a batch of chocolate cookies when she realized that she'd run out of cocoa powder. So she substituted semi-sweet chocolate for the cocoa powder. Wakefield thought that the chocolate would melt during baking and become dispersed throughout the cookies. Instead the chocolate pieces retained their shape within each distinctive vanilla-flavored cookie—for the surprisingly perfect contrast of flavors and texture.  

Perfect Chocolate-Chip Cookies Recipe from "San Francisco Flavors"
(favorite recipes from the Junior League of San Francisco)

1 cup (2 sticks) of unsalted butter at room temperature
3/4 cup of packed brown sugar
3/4 cup of granulated sugar
2 large eggs at room temperature
2 teaspoons of pure vanilla extract
2 1/2 cups of all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon of salt
1 teaspoon of baking soda
2 cups of semisweet chocolate chips

*Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and line a baking pan with parchment paper. *In a large bowl, beat the butter and sugar together until it is light and fluffy. *Beat in the eggs and vanilla. *Add the flour, salt and baking soda, and mix well. Fold in the chocolate chips. *Using a tablespoon, scoop spoonfuls of dough onto the baking pan. *Bake for 12 minutes or until lightly browned. *Let cool for 2 minutes before serving.

2.) Tarte Tatin

The most ubiquitous of French desserts has a humble pedigree. This fabled apple tart, Tarte Tatin, was the unintentional baking invention an an untrained baker, Stéphanie Tatin. The Demoiselles Tatin (sisters Stéphanie and Caroline) often prepared apple tart for the guests at their charming hotel in the small town of Lamotte-Beuvron, France. One day in 1898 was especially busy at the hotel. In the flurry of hectic preparations, Stéphanie placed the apples in the pan but forgot the tart crust. When she took the pan out of the oven, she realized her mistake. As a quick fix, she put the tart dough on top of the cooked apples and then put it back in the oven. When the crust was done cooking, she flipped it over. The result: an upside-down apple tart with perfectly caramelized apples.

Tarte Tatin Recipe from "My Château Kitchen" by Anne Willan

For the Pastry Crust (Pâte Brisée):
1 2/3 cups of all-purpose flour
7 tablespoons (100g) of unsalted cold butter in small pieces
1 egg yolk
1/2 teaspoon of salt
3 tablespoons of cold water
For the Caramelized Apples:
3 lbs. of firm apples (such as Granny Smith) peeled & quartered
4 tablespoons (75g) of butter
3/4 cup (150g) of granulated sugar

*Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit *Make the pastry dough - and refrigerate for at least one hour. *Melt the butter in a 10" or 11" frying pan (or Tatin mold) and then add the sugar. *Over medium-low heat, caramelize the butter and sugar until it turns golden brown. *Arrange the apple pieces in the skillet, pack them together as tightly as possible. *Cook apples on the stovetop over low heat for about 10 minutes, until the apples soften and absorb the caramel sauce.

*Roll out the pastry dough to a circle slightly larger than your skillet. *Cover the apples with the dough and tuck the edges of the dough down into the pan and poke a hole at the center of the hole. *Bake the tart in the oven for about 20-25 minutes, until the crust is golden brown. *Remove the tart from the oven, allow to cool for 20 minutes. *Cover the skillet with a plate, turn it over to invert the tart. 

*Serve warm with crème fraîche or vanilla ice cream. 

3.) Goosey Cake

This is a pound cake gone wrong. The resulting dessert is a cross between a buttery cookie and a custard. The origins of Goosey Cake are more difficult to ascertain. I read somewhere that the baker got confused while prepping ingredients, mixing up the proportions of butter and flour. However the cake ended up to be incredibly rich and delicious. 

Goosey Cake Recipe:

1 stick of unsalted butter at room temperature
1 cup of granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon of salt
2 large eggs
1 1/2 cup of all-purpose flour
Apricot jam

*Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. *Prepare cupcake molds by placing two cupcake liners into each mold. *In a large bowl, combine the butter, sugar and salt and mix well. *You can use a wooden spoon or electric mixer. *Next add the egg and then gradually incorporate the flour. *Spoon the batter into each cupcake mold until it is three-quarters full. *Finally, drop one spoonful of apricot jam into the center of each cupcake. *Bake the cakes for 25-30 minutes, until golden brown. *Allow to cool for 10 minutes before serving.

Copyright © 2014, Lisa Alexander. All rights reserved.

March 27, 2014

Hot Off the Waffle Press!

{Review of Linea Caffe & Belgian Waffle Recipe}

Buckwheat waffle with mascarpone and honey at Linea Caffe ($7)

Tipped off by a "Bargain Bite" review in the San Francisco Chronicle on March 6th, this past weekend I made an early morning expedition in quest of gourmet waffles. The source of these gaufres (French for "waffle") is surprising: a tiny little neighborhood cafe in the Mission District that I've walked by frequently but never even considered stopping into. Linea Caffe is a wonderful discovery!

From the storefront, Linea Caffe appears to be just another coffee shop offering $3 shots of espresso. You'd never imagine that they serve fancy Belgian waffles. There are no tables inside and I've never seen a line outside (at least before the article was published), which are the two main indicators of a San Francisco brunch spot. 

The "dining area" at Linea Caffe. It's perfect for brunch on a sunny day!

The small nondescript coffee shop seems to be on the brink of a new trend, somewhere between a restaurant and a pop-up. There's not really a kitchen, just a few waffle makers behind the espresso machines. It's a brilliant idea that makes the most of the space. The NY Times published an article on March 18th about Linea Caffe's innovative concept.

Selection of Waffles at Linea Caffe

Linea Caffe is the collaboration of trendsetters in the restaurant/coffee scene: Andrew Barnett, World Barista Championship Belgian "Cup of Excellence" winner and Anthony Myint, owner of "Mission Chinese Food" and "Commonwealth" restaurants. Needless to say, waffles must be on the cutting edge these days. In the same way that grey became the new black and Tuesday became the new Thursday, I predict that Belgian waffles will become the new pancakes. 

Brussels-style yeasted waffle with maple syrup ($6)

The waffles at Linea Caffe are truly gourmet. They're perfectly crispy on the outside and moist on the inside. Even the simple waffle with maple syrup is something special: It's made in the Brussels style, meaning the batter's rising agent is yeast instead of baking powder and baking soda. This gives the waffle an aromatic yeasty flavor that is less sweet than an ordinary waffle. The other waffles are not made with yeast but are equally delicious. 

Fruit and Greek yogurt waffle with oranges, house marmalade and olive oil ($7)

Linea Caffe also does a wonderful job with the toppings, all of which are excellent quality. The maple syrup is pure Grade A syrup. One of the waffles is drizzled with spoonfuls of Greek yogurt and fresh orange wedges, plus a bit of homemade marmalade and a touch of olive oil—the perfect combination of flavors. My favorite was the buckwheat waffle (has a nice complex, nutty flavor) topped with a generous dollop of rich, creamy mascarpone and sweet local honey.

Belgian Waffle Recipe (from "Larousse Gastronomique")

Inspired by my waffle experience at Linea Caffe, I searched for a good basic recipe that would produce results similar to Linea's plain waffle. This simple Belgian waffle recipe comes from "Larousse Gastronomique," a French encyclopedia of gastronomy, the ultimate foodie reference manual!

4 1/2 cups (500g) of all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons of baking soda
4 teaspoons of baking powder
2 teaspoons of salt
2 - 3 tablespoons of superfine sugar
2/3 cup (5 oz.) of melted unsalted butter
5 beaten eggs
3 1/2 cup of whole milk

In a large bowl, mix all of the ingredients together. Grease your waffle press and then pour a small ladleful of batter onto the hot griddle. Close the waffle press and cook for a few minutes, until the waffle is golden brown.  

Copyright © 2014, Lisa Alexander. All rights reserved.

February 25, 2014

You Deserve a "Bakation"!

{Review of Le Marais & Lemon Tart Recipe}

San Francisco sunshine and fine viennoiseries! What could be better? Ok, maybe a trip to the French Riviera! However if you can't get away to France but need an escape from the humdrum of day-to-day life (and American pastries), then visit Le Marais Bakery. 

Le Marais Bakery succeeds at offering truly authentic French pâtisserie. I love that the pastries are not "dumbed down" for the local audience who may not know how each dessert should taste. Mais non! Le Marais Bakery does not underestimate the California customer. Instead the bakery caters to those with finer tastes.

Pastry Case at Le Marais Bakery

The pastries that you'll find at Le Marais Bakery are not Americanized or adulterated in any other way. They're not too sweet. They're not too big. They are just right! They're made with freshest highest-quality ingredients. In addition, all of pastries at Le Marais are traditional, artisanal and organic. Merci beaucoup!

Le Marais Bakery offers a wide selection of classic French pastries.

Le Marais had sold out of croissants by 3 o'clock on the day of my visit, which is a very good sign. I appreciate that the bakery didn't have a surplus of croissants hanging around. I cannot imagine that Le Marais Bakery would ever pass off a day-old croissant as a fresh one. (I believe many bakeries and cafés do this, despite what they may tell you.)

Le Marais offers fresh coffee and handcrafted breads in addition to French pastries, croissants, quiches and sandwiches.

My favorite dessert from Le Marais was the Lemon Tart. Perfectly balanced between sweetness and citrus flavors, this creation reminded me of the lemon tart from Gérard Mulot Pâtisserie in Paris—the highest praise that a lemon tart could ever earn! One of the finest pâtisserie establishments in Paris, Gérard Mulot is well known for its Tarte au Citron (lemon tart). Cookbook author Linda Dannenberg shares Gérard Mulot's Tarte au Citron recipe (see below) in her Paris Boulangerie Pâtisserie publication.

Le Marais Bakery's Lemon Tart is delicious and beautiful (it's decorated with fresh marshmallows).
The Apple Tart was wonderful, too! Le Marais offers one of the classic French preparations of tarte aux pommes (apple tart): traditional butter crust baked with frangipane (almond cream) and slices of fresh apple. 

The Apple Tart is made with "fragipane" and delicious butter pastry crust.
I also appreciated Le Marais' financier (almond cake), which was perfectly moist and rich. I believe it may have been made with ground hazelnuts in addition to almond powder. Impressively, the presentation is so fancy that it outdoes any French version. Typically a financier is just a simple cake without any decoration. Originally this dessert was just a quick snack that French bankers (financiers) would pick up on the go, hence the name!

This is the fanciest financier that I have ever seen ... including the best in France!

Le Marais also offers delicious savory items. I enjoyed the vegetarian quiche—featuring broccoli on the day I was there. I'm sure that this quiche was also made with considerable amount of heavy cream and Gruyère cheese, since it's so rich! 

As you can see by the photo below, the sun shines directly inside Marais Bakery—another reason for it being a staycation destination! The storefront faces south, so in the afternoon you actually need to wear sunglasses inside the shop. The glare would stop anyone from using a laptop, and therefore the bakery is blissfully free of computers. It's a true vacation! 

 Le Marais Bakery's Vegetarian Quiche (featuring brocoli) 

from Paris Boulangerie Pâtisserie by Linda Dannenberg
One of my all-time favorite cookbooks! {Photo credit: Amazon.com}


Pastry Crust (Pâte Sablée):
1 1/2 cup (200g) of unsalted butter, softened
2/3 cup of confectioners' sugar
1 large egg, beaten
1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract
1 3/4 cups of all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon of salt
2 tablespoons of ground blanched almonds

Lemon Cream (Crème au Citron):
3/4 cup of fresh lemon juice
10 tablespoons of unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into pieces
1 cup of sugar
2 large eggs
3 large egg yolks


To make the pastry crust: 
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Combine the butter, confectioners' sugar, egg, salt and vanilla, and mix until blended. Sift the flour, then gradually add it to the butter mixture along with the almonds. Don't mix it too much or the pastry will get tough. When the dough starts to come together, cut it in half, shape into two disks and refrigerate for at least one hour. 

How to roll out the dough and place it in the tart pan:
Once the dough is chilled, place one of the disks on a lightly floured surface or on wax paper. Roll it out to the dimensions of 11 inch diameter and 1/8 inch thick. Line a 9 inch tart pan with a 9 inch circle of parchment paper or coat the bottom of the pan with butter and flour. Carefully place the dough on the tart pan, trim off the extra dough at the edges with your rolling pin and then pinch the edges to create a decorative border.

How to "blind bake" the pastry crust: 
Cover the dough with parchment paper and fill with beans or rice (this is a "blind baking" technique to make sure that the pastry doesn't puff up while baking). Bake for about 10 minutes, until the pastry is a pale golden color. Remove the filling and parchment paper.  Now your pastry shell is ready for the pastry cream (next step).

To make the lemon cream:
*In a saucepan, heat the lemon juice, butter and 3/4 cup of the sugar over low heat until the butter has melted and the mixture comes to a gentle simmer, about 2 minutes. 
*Meanwhile, with an electric mixer, beat the eggs, egg yolks, and remaining 1/4 cup sugar at medium-high speed until the mixture is pale and light, about 4 minutes. 
*Lower the mixer speed and slowly pour the hot lemon juice mixture into the egg mixture, beating until blended and fluffy, about 3 minutes. 
*Return the mixture to the saucepan and cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon until the mixture nearly starts to simmer, about 3 minutes. 
*Transfer the lemon cream to a metal mixing bowl and refrigerate until cool. If not using immediately, lay a sheet of plastic wrap or wax paper directly on the surface of the cream.
*With a rubber spatula, spread the cooled lemon cream evenly into the pastry shell; it should nearly fill the shell. Smooth the top with the spatula. 
*Return the tart to the oven and bake for 5 minutes longer, which will set the filling slightly without coloring it. 
*Remove the tart from the oven and carefully remove the tart from the pan, then allow the tart to cool on a wire rack. 
*Refrigerate the tart until the filling is firm. 
*Take the tart out of the refrigerator 10 to 15 minutes before serving. The tart is best enjoyed on the day it is baked. Serves 6 to 8 people.

Bon Voyage!
Mmmm!! Bakations are finger-licking good!!

Copyright © 2014, Lisa Alexander. All rights reserved.