Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Stolen Granola

I went to pastry school for two reasons. The first was to learn to make croissants. I had given it a go once or twice, the first time in woodland hills in 100º heat, and the second with spelt flour, and both attempts had turned out less than spectacular: leaden and heavy.

The second was to collect some killer recipes: the perfect brownie, chocolate chip cookie, ice cream base, etc. My teacher, Claire Legas, a tough cookie (sorry) who had worked at Absinthe,  Moose’s and the French Laundry, made it evident that while the former requirement could be met (my croissants turned out flaky and light under her tutelage) the latter never would.

In the third week or so, when I asked her if the croissant recipe in our packets was her favorite go-to, she exclaimed indignantly, ‘Of course not! I’m not giving you my recipes!’ During the custard portion of our class, a classmate expounded on the deliciousness of Delfina’s buttermilk panna cotta. ‘Oh, I have that recipe,’ Claire said casually. ‘Can I have it?’ the classmate asked eagerly. ‘No!’ came the reply. ‘Some things you have to work for.’

When school was over, Claire kindly let me do my internship with her at her new place of work, Cafe Cacao in the Scharffen Berger building. When she had me make the best granola I’d ever tasted, I didn’t even consider asking for the recipe. Instead, I repeated the quantities over and over in my head until I’d committed them to memory, and wrote them down as soon as I got home from work.

When I emailed Claire a few years later to confess, I feared she would be cross. But instead she said, ‘Good for you! Half the battle is just knowing which recipes to steal.’ Then she told me that the recipe isn’t even hers; she stole it from chef Casey Hayden at Moose’s many years ago. So I plucked up the courage to ask after her insanely flaky pie dough recipe. ‘No,’ she told me. ‘Pie dough is sacred.’

I’m always wary of recipes that claim to be ‘The Best’, so, while I have never experienced a superior granola in the wide world, I have refrained (barely) from calling it that.

I will, however, tell you what makes this granola so special:

1) an unconscionable amount of butter
2) brown (or unrefined) sugar and maple syrup
3) a mixture of seasonings (cinnamon, freshly grated nutmeg, orange zest and a hefty amount of salt) that blend together seamlessly to create fullness of flavor without tasting like one particular thing
4) large, whole almonds and cashews for crunch, texture and good-for-you-ness
5) a brilliant baking technique which results in large sheets of crispy, golden granola, almost like a delicate granola bar, which can be crumbled into clumps and clusters

Jay and I know it’s summer when we eat fresh berries and stone fruit topped with creamy yogurt and a dusting of crispy, oaty loveliness every morning for breakfast. We take it with us on trips, such as the music camp we'll be at this coming week. It is quick to put together and bake, and it keeps well for at least a month. You will need two rimmed baking sheets and some parchment paper, but this granola doesn’t need to be stirred every 10 minutes like most others, thus it is mostly hands-off.

I’ve made many, many batches of this granola over the years. I've come to tweak it very slightly, reducing the butter from 8 tablespoons down to 6, and the salt from 1 1/2 teaspoons down to 1. It is pretty fabulous as is, but sometimes I switch it up with equally lovely results, adding a bit of chopped candied ginger, wheat germ, or sesame seeds to the mix. Once I browned the butter with a vanilla bean, and this made a gorgeous topping for maple bourbon ice cream. I've included a honey-cardamom variation below. Feel free to go crazy; just don't add any dried fruit before baking as it may burn.

And unlike Claire, I won’t make you work too hard for the recipe.

Great granola:
Maple Bourbon Brown Butter Granola
Cardamom Honey Granola
Black Sesame Granola
Chocolate Granola

Stolen Granola

Adapted slightly from Casey Hayden of Moose’s via Claire Legas

Makes 3 - 4 cups

2 1/2 cups (1/2 pound) whole oats
1/2 cup (2 ounces) whole, raw almonds
1/2 cup (2 ounces) whole, raw cashews
1/3 cup (2 ounces) light brown (or unrefined) sugar
zest of 1 small orange
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon (approx.) freshly grated nutmeg
3 ounces (6 tablespoons / 3/4 stick) unsalted butter
1/4 cup (2 ounces) maple syrup
1 teaspoon salt (yes, 1 teaspoon)

Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 325º. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Have a second rimmed baking sheet and piece of parchment ready.

Combine the oats, nuts, sugar, orange, cinnamon, and nutmeg together in a large bowl. In a small saucepan, melt together the butter, maple syrup and salt, stirring to dissolve the salt. Pour over the oat mixture, tossing to combine thoroughly.

Dump the mixture onto the lined baking sheet, and spread it into a thin sheet no thicker than an almond. Ideally, the edges will be slightly thicker than the center as they will bake faster. Lay the second piece of parchment over the granola, and place the second sheet pan on top, right-side up, making a little granola sandwich.

Slide the whole thing into the oven and bake for 20 minutes. Rotate and continue baking another 10 - 20 minutes, peeking under the parchment to make sure the edges aren't burning, until the granola is a rich golden brown. It will still be soft, but will crisp up as it cools.

Let the granola cool completely in the sheet pan sandwich, then break up and store in an airtight container for up to a month (or possibly more.) Enjoy over fruit and yogurt for breakfast, alone for a crunchy snack, or over ice cream for a decadent dessert.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

(Gluten-free!) Chocolate Hazelnut Brown Butter Cake

My good friend Leigh (who just got MARRIED last Sunday to an amazing woman named Kim!), spent a summer studying in Perugia, a college town in the Umbria region of Italy, ten or so years ago. I visited him there for a few days that summer, and got shown around by his two adorable flatmates, Ludovica and Cinzia, both tiny little things with impeccable fashion sense and huge appetites for the good things in life. After a night of boozing and schmoozing and learning lewd Italian phrases and songs, we all wandered around the narrow, cobbled streets in search of vittels during the wee hours. We followed our noses to a 'secret bakery' that was completing their early morning bake off in preparation for the following day. They graciously sold us some pastries - warm croissants filled with marmalade, and some small nutty cakes.

The cakes were not unlike this cake here, but that actually wasn't what I was getting at. Perugia is best known for Baci, blue and silver foil-wrapped chocolate-hazelnut treats. These candies managed to find their way to Topanga Canyon when I was younger, and became an obsession for several years. Thus I appreciated visiting their place of origin, and devoured my fair share.

The other night, I got an inexplicable craving for that heavenly combination of toasty hazelnuts and fruity milk chocolate, so I decided to bake those flavors into a cake. I reckoned they would work beautifully as a financier, which combines vanilla-infused browned butter with ground nuts, a small amount of flour, and egg whites. I decided to make it gluten-free so that I might share it with my chocophilic, gluten-intolerant sister.

I perused a few different recipes, namely the financiers from Kate Zuckerman's The Sweet Life, and the chocolate almond cakes from David L's book The Sweet Life in Paris (hey, that's a funny coincidence), before coming up with these proportions.

I'm quite happy with the results. And so was my sister, her daughter, and especially Jay, who spotted some prince mushrooms while we were snacking on it after a hike in Marin.

This has the taste and texture of a traditional European chocolate nut torte, the main difference being that it uses only egg whites, which is an important feature for us avid ice cream and custard makers who always seem to have jars and jars of whites lying around the fridge or freezer waiting to be used up. If you're looking for ways to use up the yolks, try making the horchata, mugolio or vanilla ice creams, or crème caramels.

Since this recipe has few ingredients, use the best quality you can find. I like using Strauss butter which is 'European-style,' meaning the fat content is at least 80%, necessary for achieving those caramelized solids and not losing too much moisture as the butter cooks. Use a quality cocoa powder, preferably dutch-processed (though I suspect the recipe will work fine with the natural stuff), and a milk chocolate with at least 40% cacao mass, such as Scharffenberger, Recchiuti, or Green and Black's.

There are several steps to preparing the ingredients, but after that, the cake is easy to put together - no fancy creaming or whipping. Just grind the nuts with the dries, and whisk in the liquid egg whites and browned butter. It will souffle up in the oven, then fall and buckle in a bit at the sides. You can serve it warm, but I liked it best at room temperature. It is delicate enough to serve as a plated dessert, with a touch of unsweetened whipped cream and some fresh berries, yet sturdy enough to wrap up and bring on a hike or picnic. It is quite rich, and is especially excellent served with coffee. All those nuts and butter make it a good keeper; it tastes even better the second or third day, and will probably stay moist and tasty for up to a week (though good luck keeping it around for that long!)

You can bake the batter in smaller molds, such as muffin cups, for individual cakelets; just reduce the baking time by about half. Buon appetito!

Financier Fancier:
Berry-Fig Financiers
(Gluten-Free) Buckwheat Hazelnut Cake
(Gluten-Free) Meyer Lemon Almond Cake

(Gluten-Free!) Chocolate Hazelnut Brown Butter Cake

Makes one 8" cake, 10 - 12 servings

Feel free to substitute finely chopped dark or even unsweetened chocolate for the milk, and almonds for the hazelnuts. For a truly chocophilic experience, spread the cooled cake with a hazelnut liquor-spiked chocolate glaze.

6 ounces (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, plus 1 tablespoon for the pan
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons cocoa powder (preferably dutch-processed), plus 1 tablespoon for the pan
1/2 vanilla bean
1 1/4 cups hazelnuts, toasted, skins rubbed off, cooled
1/4 cup flour (such as sweet rice, or all-purpose)
1/2 teaspoon salt
7 ounces (about 1 cup) egg whites, from about 7 eggs
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 ounces (about 1/2 cup) finely chopped dark milk chocolate

optional for serving:
powdered sugar
unsweetened whipped cream
fresh berries

Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350º. Using the 1 tablespoon of butter, grease an 8" round cake pan, line the bottom with a round of parchment, then butter the parchment. Dust with the 1 tablespoon cocoa powder, turning the pan to coat it evenly and tapping out the excess. Set aside.

Roast the hazelnuts in the oven for 10-12 minutes, until fragrant and toasted. Let cool slightly, then rub between your palms or a tea towel to remove most of the skins. Let cool completely.

Place the remaining butter in a medium saucepan. Split the vanilla bean lengthwise, scrape out the seeds with the dull side of a knife, and add the pod and scrapings to the butter. Cook over medium heat, swirling occasionally, until the butter browns and smells nutty, 8 - 10 minutes. The butter will foam up, and the milk solids on the bottom of the pan should be a rich brown color. The rest of the butter will remain golden-amber. Watch it carefully, as it can go from brown to burnt in little time. Remove from the heat and let cool sightly.

In a food processor, combine the cooled nuts, flour, cocoa powder and salt. Grind very finely.

In a large metal bowl, whisk together the whites and the two sugars. Place over a water bath or directly over a low flame if you're feeling butch (but be careful!) and stir constantly with a whisk until the mixture feels warm to the touch and the sugar is mostly dissolved. Remove from the heat, and whisk in the almond mixture. Place the bowl on a damp towel to secure, and gradually whisk in the warm butter, 1/4 cup at a time, so that the mixture emulsifies. Fold in the chopped chocolate. The batter will be fairly liquid. It can be baked now, or allowed to hang out in the fridge for up to several days.

Pour into the prepared pan. Bake the cake for 30 - 40 minutes, until the top springs back when pressed lightly. Remove from the oven and let cool for 10 or 20 minutes. Loosen the edges with a small spatula if necessary. Place a large plate over the pan, grasp with bemitted hands, and flip the whole thing over to invert. Remove the pan and peel off the parchment. Let the cake cool a bit more. Serve warm or at room temperature.

The cake will keep for several days at room temperature, or up to a week in the fridge.