In the Night Kitchen

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Like Max in Where The Wild Things Are, in this book Mickey escapes reality to enter his dream, a night kitchen where bakers bake, all night long, to make the morning cake. And like in dreams, things can be out of proportion. The kitchen looks like a beautiful city built with giant food containers that make you feel small, like a kid in a grown-up’s kitchen.

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In the book In the Night Kitchen, the bakers have a problem and Mickey is able to come to the rescue, and thanks to him, there will be cake in the morning. The story is a great example of how you can make kids feel important through food. Give them a small part to play that makes them proud, and they will come back. Like when you race with a child and you let them win.

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There are many other things I like about In the Night Kitchen. Maurice Sendak doesn’t make a big deal of the final cake. You actually never see it done, or if there is something that looks like a steaming cake coming out of the oven, it looks very similar to the cake before it entered the oven. The story is more about the process, the ‘making of,’ the fun, the busy-ness, and the emergencies in the kitchen. The kitchen is where things happen – just like the big city after all.

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I think about this book at least once a year, when I stay up late baking for a fundraiser. It’s been a busy weekend, but what it was, really, is a dream come true!

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That’s Disgusting!

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There is croque madame, and then there is croque crotte (literally “crunch dung”), which is what I like to call the chocolate coated grapes featured in Michel Richard’s Happy in the Kitchen cookbook. They are absolutely delicious!

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I thought of chocolate truffles this summer while watching my steps to avoid camel droppings along the shore of Yasmina Club Med resort, one of the rare spots you can find camels in the Moroccan north region, where they are brought specifically for the leisure of tourists. Croque crotte might sound gross, improper perhaps? Not if you don’t speak French, or if it’s… April Fools!

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What is ‘proper’ is something that kids hear all too often, because they naturally do some unpleasant things. April Fools and its icky food tricks can be amusing but also confusing for kids, unless revolting things are explained calmly and maybe with humor, which of course parents never do when revolting things happen. Kids love to play with food, for example. The last time my kids were snacking on pomegranates, they started squeezing the seeds and shooting juice on each others face, then ducking under our heavy wooden dining table. It took some time for my son to realize that what was dripping from his forehead was not pomegranate juice but blood, after ducking and hitting the edge of the table, breaking through his skin. That was not the time to counsel with dignity on what is or is not proper to do with food. In fact, it was time to run to the closest emergency room. He had four stitches, by the way.

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That’s why I like That’s Disgusting!. The picture book That’s Disgusting! by Francesco Pittau and Bernadette Gervais is a brilliant project. It’s nice for parents wanting to teach their children about where things belong. It might be effective, just because it is one of the only opportunities for parents to counsel their kids on repulsive things without scaring the hell of them.

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Now back to Michel Richard. Though he doesn’t suggest in his book to make his chocolate grapes for April Fools, he thinks of them as a nice way to trick satiated guests at the end of a copious diner. They are also a great snack for kids, who usually love both grapes and chocolate. There is an incredible balance between the fleshy fruit and the chocolate candy, the sweetness of the grapes and the tart of the chocolate, the juiciness of the grapes and the dryness of the cocoa powder. It’s a genius combination and ridiculously simple to make. All you need is:

• 1 pound firm seedless sweet grapes, stems removed
• 4 ounces 60% semisweet chocolate, melted
• 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder

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Place the grapes in a large bowl so you can toss them easily. Make sure the grapes are completely dry. They also need to be cold, which keeps them firm and easy to toss. The cold also speeds up the chocolate setting. So, I suggest you wash them, dry them, and then keep them in the fridge until you are ready to proceed with the rest of the recipe. Pour the melted chocolate on the grapes while stirring with a spatula, carefully folding through the center of the grapes to coat all of them evenly.

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After only a few minutes, when the chocolate begins to set, use a small strainer and sprinkle cocoa powder over the chocolate coated grapes. If the chocolate is still wet, the cocoa will soak into the chocolate and will create lumps. Gently stir and toss the grapes as you sift, continuing to add the cocoa until all of the grapes are well coated and separated. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until serving time (up to 3 days).

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For less disgusting April Fools’ food ideas, check Silly Apron’s April Fools’ project from 2013.

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Weather-Inspired Delights (Part 3)

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I am keeping the series going until I convince everyone to try these cookies! Actually, I decided to write on this topic again because I had dreamed up this version of chocolate cookies and speculated about them in my previous post, but now I really made them for the first time. And I am happy I did. Basically, the process of making these cookies is the same as the sablés, in that you shape the dough into a log, freeze it, then slice it before baking. There are a few differences from the original sablés recipe. This version calls for baking soda, and in contrast to what I expected, the sparkles around the cookies stayed nice and round despite the leavening agent. And, this version incorporates chocolate chunks in the dough, exactly like in chocolate chip cookies, but the taste is even better, mainly thanks to the salt that enhances the chocolate flavor.

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Ingredients for two logs – Makes about 36 cookies:

  • 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 stick plus 3 tablespoons (11 tablespoons) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 2/3 cups (packed) light brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon fleur de sel (or 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt)
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 5 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped into chips; or, a generous 3/4 cup store-bought mini chocolate chips (I use half of each, as bittersweet chocolate contains cocoa butter and melts in your mouth, whereas mini chocolate chips keep their shape after baking and are much cheaper!)
  • 1 egg yolk
  • Sugar, for coating

Click here to see the step-by-step recipe with images from the Food52 website. This recipe is attributed to Pierre Hermé and Dorie Greenspan, and the cookies are known as World Peace Cookies. These cookies are not sugar coated, so the recipe doesn’t show that step. So, just after you remove your log-shaped dough from the fridge or the freezer, you will need to brush it lightly with a tiny amount of the egg yolk and roll it in the sugar. If there are some irregularities in the log’s shape and the sugar doesn’t stick everywhere, just sprinkle the sugar over the gaps. Then slice and bake. And of course, share and enjoy!

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Weather-Inspired Delights (Part 2)

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In my previous post about Pierre Hermé’s chocolate sparklers, I mentioned how these cookies could be used as a Valentine’s Day treat. In fact, they are adaptable to any special occasion. If you don’t have colorful crystallized sugar, just put some white sugar in a zip lock bag, add one drop of food coloring to the sugar, and shake the bag for a few seconds until the white sugar is entirely tinted (see my King’s Day post).

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Pierre Hermé’s cookies look sophisticated; it’s hard to believe that so little effort goes into making them. Kids can be involved in the process, especially in rolling the log of dough in sugar.

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If you’re trying this recipe for the first time, it might be easier to get them involved in the packaging phase. My kids love to share homemade sweets with their teachers, current and past. They’re excited to deliver these cookies to their school for Valentine’s Day.

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Here is a link to the original recipe. The ingredients and process are simple, almost as if you were making chocolate chip cookies: flour, salt, cocoa powder, and cinnamon, blended and added to a mixture of butter, sugar, and vanilla. Next the chocolate chips are incorporated. The difference is that there are no eggs and no baking powder or baking soda. The dough is easily formed into log, chilled, coated in sugar, sliced, then baked. If you don’t like cinnamon, don’t worry – you don’t really taste it. Instead, the cinnamon enhances the chocolate flavor, like a little coffee does in some other chocolate recipes.

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If you like to compare recipes, here is a link to another very popular Pierre Hermé recipe for chocolate cookies that do not use sparkles. This recipe uses baking powder, which makes the dough puff a little, so it doesn’t really work if you’re seeking neat circles of sparkles bundled together.

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I hope you try this Weather-Inspired Valentine’s Delights. If you are looking for more ideas, make sure to check Silly Apron’s Valentine’s Day project from last year. And whatever you do, I would love to know about it!

Weather-Inspired Delights

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Today’s icy weather was a great inspiration to try Pierre Hermé’s chocolate sparklers. I thought about this recipe because the sugar around the cookies reminds me of the ice outside my home.

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Pierre Hermé’s cookies are called sablés, which derives from the French word sable, meaning “sand.” Sablés are round French shortbread biscuits with a crumbly, ‘sandy’ texture and a golden color. They can be flavored with nuts, citrus zest, dried fruits, teas, or chocolate.

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Hermé has several chocolate sablé recipes. The one I use calls for Dutch-processed cocoa powder, which has a dark color.

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When shopping for chocolate cocoa powder, keep in mind that there are two kinds of unsweetened cocoa powder: natural and Dutch-processed (also called alkalized). Here is a link that explains the difference between the two as well as when to use which kind.

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I added the mini chocolate chip cookies from another recipe of his. You can also use bittersweet chocolate, chopped into small chips (about 1/3 inch). The pieces of chocolate bring another layer of texture to the sandy feel of the cookies and the crunch of the crystallized sugar. Also, the dough calls for white sugar, but other recipes use light brown sugar or a mix of the two, so it’s really up to you.

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The sablé dough is very quick and easy to assemble. Once you shape it into a log form, it needs to be chilled, so that you can slice it neatly. This recipe calls for a couple hours in the refrigerator, but I freeze the log for 15 minutes, then transfer to the fridge for only 15 minutes more, and the process works just fine.

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Here’s a video of Pierre Hermé himself making another recipe of chocolate sablé. It’s a different recipe and in French, but the process is the same and the video will give you an idea of how easy making sablés is.

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Sablés are a great treat for Valentine’s Day. You could swap white sugar with pink or red and make a nice gift. The recipe I use makes two logs, and each log makes about 15 cookies. I have one leftover log in my freezer from this time, so I think I’ll use it to make Valentine’s chocolate sablés with the kids for their teachers. The kids can brush the log all over with egg yolk and then roll the log in crystallized sugar. I’ll take over for the slicing and baking part.

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These cookies do not have a leavening agent, so you don’t need to leave a lot of space between them on the baking sheet– just enough so hot air will have room to circulate and cook them. Once the cookies are cool, have the kids help with taste testing and packaging!

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Re-discovering my Favorite Childhood Snack

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Fatna was her name. We called her Me Fatna, meaning “Mother Fatna.” She was covered from head to toe, like conservative young Moroccan women today and like my grandmother. I was in elementary school, and I thought she must be in her 40s.. or maybe her 80s? My parents recently told me on Skype that they saw her near my elementary school, still with her cart selling chickpeas, so she probably wasn’t all that old during my school years after all.

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As soon as the big metal gate of the school opens, I would run to her. “Me Fatna, 20 cents please.” She would uncover the pot and a big cloud of steam would cover what little was left visible of her face. She would scoop warm chickpeas into a paper cone, sprinkle them with cumin and salt, cover the cone with the palm of her hand, and then give the whole thing a good shake to coat the chickpeas evenly with the spices. That was my regular snack on the walk back home from school. After years of this daily routine, I thought I knew something about chickpeas. Then one day at the supermarket, I spotted an unrecognizable green vegetable. The label read “fresh chickpeas.” I was shocked – happily shocked!

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It took five minutes to cook the fresh chickpeas in the steamer. To my surprise, they didn’t taste like the usual chickpeas boiled or straight from the can. They had an unbelievable flavor, a kind of fusion of regular chickpeas, nuts, and some unnameable vegetable.

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I Googled “fresh chickpeas” and was intrigued to find them used in hummus and guacamole, fried or charred in their pods – Yum! But for the first time I made fresh chickpeas, I wanted to keep things familiar: chickpeas with cumin and salt. I am not sure why, but I decided to finish them with olive oil. Maybe because that’s how I figured my grandmother – may God rest her soul – would have completed the dish.

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My Yule Log Bread

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I know, a Yule log is supposed to be a cake, not a bread. But when I first made Pullman bread, it reminded me of a log, and now every log I see looks to me like a loaf of bread. I read that originally, ancients would gather at the end of December to welcome the winter solstice by burning a Yule log to purge everything negative from the previous year. The ashes were then preserved, as they were said to offer good luck and protection against lightning. What wonderful imagery for ending a year and starting a new one!

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Pullman bread, meanwhile, derives its name from the Pullman Company, which invented railroad cars in the 19th century and, along with them, lidded baking pans that maximized the use of space in train kitchens. So to make Pullman bread, you’ll need a Pullman loaf pan.

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We made loaves and loaves of Pullman bread this winter break. We had it toasted and untoasted, for breakfast and snacks, we used it for grilled cheese sandwichs at lunch and croques madame at dinner. We cut it into small cubes, toasted them, and stored them for soups and salads. It’s a great bread to have around, and it keeps for days, simply sitting on your kitchen table covered with a cloth.

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The recipe I use requires a 2-pound Pullman loaf pan sprayed with a non-stick spray, 4 cups all-purpose flour, 1 package instant yeast, 2 tbs sugar, 2 tsp salt, 1/2 cup warm water, 1 cup warm whole milk, 1 egg (room temperature), and 3 tbs melted butter.

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Place the dry ingredients in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook and give them a quick mix, then add the wet ingredients. Mix on low speed for 30 minutes. Transfer the dough to a lightly oiled large bowl, cover tightly with a plastic wrap, and let rest for at least one hour (or until the dough’s volume doubles).

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Place the dough on a lightly floured surface and fold it several times, shaping it into a rectangle approximately the length of the Pullman loaf pan. Place the dough in the pan and slide on the lid, leaving a slit open so you can watch the dough. Cover the gap with a cloth. Within a couple hours, the dough should rise close to the top.

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Very carefully close tight the lid of the Pullman loaf pan and place it gently in the center of a 375°F pre-heated oven. Set a heavy object, such as a baking stone, on top of the lid to prevent any dough from leaking out during baking. Bake for 30 minutes, then open the oven door and remove the baking stone and lid very gently. Leave the pan in the oven for 10 more minutes, until the top is golden brown. Turn the oven off, remove the Pullman loaf pan, and turn the bread out onto a cooling rack. Leave the bread to rest for at least 30 minutes before slicing it. Then, enjoy!

happy New year!

May the ashes of 2013 bring wisdom, and may 2014 be a year of accomplishment, happiness, and health for us all!

 

Pumpkin Napoleon

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There are so many ways you can eat pumpkins, but for Rebecca Estelle, it was not a matter of options. She had to eat them all the time during the Depression, so she hated pumpkins.

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Turning hatred into love is a natural process that kids go through, when their palate evolves with age or when food associated with something negative takes on positive meanings, as pumpkins eventually do for Rebecca Estelle. When your palate is mature, one way to welcome a new and strange taste is to integrate it into something you already like, in a way that brings out the best. If you don’t like pumpkin in pie, you might add it to the pastry cream of a Napoleon. The result is divine.

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Napoleon is such an autumn dessert for me. It is made with pâte feuilletée, which means “leaf-like (or sheet-like) dough.” When it bakes, the pastry puffs up and displays many crunchy golden-brown layers, like the piles of dead leaves I see from my window as I write this. In France, Napoleon goes by the name mille feuilles, which means “1000 leaves.”

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To make Napoleon, you need 3 elements: puff pastry, pastry cream, and fondant icing.

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Puff pastry: You can make puff pastry a day or two in advance or buy it ready made. Bake the puff pastry at 350ºF for about an hour between two baking sheets (in order to control the puffing volume). Then remove the top baking sheet and sprinkle heavily the visible layer of the pastry with confectioners sugar and put it back in the oven for 10 mns or until the sugar caramelizes, without covering this time.

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Pastry cream (here with pumpkin flavor): You need to combine three mixtures:

- 2 cups pastry cream, made with 6 egg yolks, 1/2 vanilla bean, and 1/2 cup granulated sugar. Whisk the ingredients together for a few minutes before  incorporating 1/2 cup all-purpose flour and 2 cups whole milk. Then pour the mixture into a saucepan and stir gently on medium heat. When the mixture starts boiling, whisk for 5 mns until the batter is thick. Strain and whisk again to cool, before adding 2 tbs butter.

- 1 cup warm pumpkin puree with pumpkin pie spices and brown sugar. Add gelatine to the puree while it is still warm (one sheet or one packet previously soaked in cold water).

- 1 cup whipped cream. Whip 1/2 cup whipping cream with 1 tsp vanilla extract. Add 1 tbs confectioners sugar at the end of the whipping process.

Use a whisk to mix the pastry cream and the pumpkin puree until they are combined and cool down. Next gently fold in the whipped cream. Now chill this pumpkin pastry cream in the fridge for a couple hours at least before using.

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Fondant icing: In a saucepan, combine 3 cups confectioners sugar, 1 cup water, and 1/4 cup corn syrup. Stir to dissolve the sugar, and place on medium to high heat until it reaches 238°F. Transfer to a mixer with a paddle attachment and wait until the temperature drops to 140°F, then mix on low to medium speed until the transparent sugar mixture becomes opaque, white, and thick like dough. Store in a an airtight plastic container for a minimum of 24 hours before use. I used some fondant icing to make orange balls for decoration, adding food coloring and working it with powdered sugar to prevent sticking.

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Once you have your three elements, start building layers. Napoleon is  traditionally made with three even puff pastry layers. The top layer is placed upside down, showing the smoothest side on the top. Between the three puff pastry layers, two layers of pastry cream, thick or thin, are applied with a spatula or a pastry bag.

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To top, the fondant icing is gently heated just to be pourable, and then applied immediately with a spatula to cover the surface. Any decorations should also be applied right away, as the icing hardens quickly.

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Due to the contrasting textures of the three layers, cutting the Napoleon into servings can be messy. The fondant icing can crack under the knife’s pressure, and the pastry cream tends to squeeze out. One solution: mark lines for slicing on the icing a few minutes after the fondant icing has set, then freeze the whole dessert for about an hour, before cutting along the visible markings on the icing.

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Whether you do or don’t like pumpkins in desserts, try this Pumpkin Napoleon and let me know what you think!

Dessert for Halloween

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What won’t kids do for the sake of sweets?! Children who won’t go brush their teeth because it’s too dark, will run into the darkness on Halloween night, unshaken by spooky ghosts and creepy creatures, for a mere bag of candy. That is the power of sweets, a power best expressed, in my opinion, in James Stevenson’s thriller What’s Under My bed? In this story, Grandpa recounts to his two grandchildren a story about his own childhood, when he was scared at bedtime. And there is only one thing that can make them feel safe again. If you haven’t read this book, please do, or watch here. Whatever your age, I promise you will enjoy it!

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So, to ease tomorrow night’s horror, I was considering making a dessert – though I have to admit, thinking about the hundreds candies soon to be circulating in and out of our house on Halloween night made me doubtful. So, how about a nutritious dessert? Sounds like a contradiction? Perhaps, but a chocolate pot de crème topped with whipped cream is my way of getting rid of the ghost in my house.

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Pot de crème is a simple, elegant, and delicious French dessert. It’s basically a custard made with egg yolks, cream, milk, sugar, and a pinch of salt. You can flavor it with vanilla, spices, herbs (lavender, mint), toasted nuts (almond, pistachio), chocolate, etc… Whatever you favor as a flavor, use the best ingredients you can afford, and especially don’t compromise on chocolate – it’s unforgiving.

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There are two ways to make pot de crème. You can start on the stove and finish in the oven, or you can make the entire thing on the stove. The second method may seem more appealing, but it requires precision, and you can easily end up with a runny custard or, worse, something like scrambled eggs. In both versions, you will need to leave the pot de crème refrigerated for a minimum of 3 hours – it’s preferable to make the dessert a day or two in advance.

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In Morocco, I don’t have an oven for baking desserts, so I use the stove-top method. There I like to make pot de crème with spices and citruses easily available.

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This is how the stove-top method works. The milk and cream are heated until you just start to see the first bubbles indicating a boil. Then, with the heat turned off, add your flavor and let the cream mixture sit for a few minutes.

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During this time, in a separate bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and sugar until they turn pale yellow. Strain the still-warm cream mixture and discard the spices. Add a spoonful of the cream to the egg mixture, and whisk until fully incorporated. Then slowly stir in the remaining cream mixture.

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At this point, return the mixture to the pot and whisk constantly over medium heat (170°F) until it thickens. Then pour the mixture into cups or little pots. When the mixture reaches room temperature, cover each pot with plastic wrap and place in the fridge.

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Now, here is my recipe for chocolate pot de crème made with the oven method. As in the stove-top method, warm the milk and cream until it just starts to boil, then, away from the heat, add chocolate and salt (instead of spices). Let the mixture sit for a minute, then stir to combine all ingredients together. Next, add to the egg yolks and sugar (which you whisked together while the chocolate was melting) following the method above, then pour into individual serving pots.

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Here is where the oven method takes another route. Place the little pots in a tray or a baking dish large enough to hold all the pots. Cover the pots with 1 sheet of aluminum foil, then position the baking tray in the middle of the oven. Pour water carefully in the tray until the bottom 1/3 of the pots are immersed. Bake for 30 minutes at 325°F. Remove the pots from the baking tray and, once cool, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.

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Chocolate Custard

  • 4 oz. good bittersweet chocolate (I use 70% dark), chopped into small pieces
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 6 egg yolks
  • 4 Tbsp. sugar
  • 1/4 tsp. salt

Whipped cream

  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 2 Tbsp. sugar
  • 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

For the whipped cream, you will need an electric whisk and a large chilled bowl. Whisk all ingredients (heavy cream, sugar, and vanilla) until peaks form. Serve immediately or refrigerate until ready to use.

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A Thousand and One Holes

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I don’t know any kid who doesn’t like Curious George or pancakes, so Curious George Makes Pancakes is definitely a smart book idea. What I like most about this book is that it has everything you need to know about food.

Food is serious,

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food is fun,

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food is simple,

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food is a great way to give – pleasure, new experiences, and service to the community.

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And food can generate appreciation.

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I never had pancakes before coming to the States. I grew up eating another sort of pancake, the Moroccan pancake or baghrir. While pancakes are made with a cake batter, baghrir is made with a yeasty batter, like bread batter. That’s why Moroccans like baghrir drizzled with Moroccan olive oil or with honey. Sometimes baghrir is enriched with eggs, milk, butter, and a kind of baking powder, making it more like a brioche.

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I am still loyal to the version I grew up eating, which has simply warm water, yeast, flour, semolina, a little sugar, and a little salt. Like bread, you need to let the batter rest for a couple hours to let the yeast do its work, which is key to creating the airy aspect of baghrir.

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As a child, watching baghrir cook was a most entertaining sight. Little bubbles of gas appear one after another, popping and leaving holes all over. That’s why Moroccans like to call baghrir: mille trous, or a ‘thousand holes,’ a play on mille feuilles (a thousand sheets), the French name of a puff pastry known in the US as the Napoleon.

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I’ll call my recipe for baghrir ‘A Thousand and One Holes,’ since for me it’s all about food and children’s stories. Here’s my recipe, try it some time and let me know how you like it.

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Ingredients: 
Batter: 2 cup all-purpose flour. 1 cup fine semolina flour. 1 packet dry yeast. 3 cups lukewarm water. 1/2 teaspoon salt. 1 tablespoon granulated white sugar.

Syrup: 3 tablespoons butter. 3 tablespoons honey.

Steps: Dissolve yeast and sugar in lukewarm water for 5 minutes to make sure yeast is alive before you add the rest of the ingredients. Then, in a blender, let the mixture work for 1 minute or so, until it resembles crepe batter. Pour into a bowl, cover tightly, and let rest for a couple hours.

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When ready to make baghrir, heat a lightly oiled non-stick pan, scoop about 1/4 cup of batter onto the pan, and let cook until you see holes all over and the batter is entirely dry. There is no need to flip. Remove the baghrir with a spatula and place on a dry towel.

To make the syrup, just melt the butter and honey together. And, enjoy!

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