Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Petits Fours

I will use almost any excuse to bake right about now. I reckon I'm two baby steps away from making up bags of biscotti to distribute to the homeless, though I would probably spend a lot of time worrying about nuts and potential allergic reactions. Anyway, despite the fact that I had already made black walnut teacakes with the specific intent of bringing them to my church's combined 50th anniversary/building dedication ceremony, I decided that I would make something a little more involved and, well, showy.

I have plenty of recipes that would work for such a purpose, but why use an established recipe when you can make one up? I decided that I wanted something very much like a petit four, but that I didn't want to use the standard petit four construction method -- or at least that I didn't want to use what I understand to be the standard petit four construction method. I figured that it would be easiest to make tiny cakes by modifying a biscuit recipe. Then I would split the biscuits, fill them with a layer of buttercream, and coat the whole shebang with some ganache.

Sadly, while the result was both gorgeous and delicious, I cannot recommend it without reservation. As it happens (and as I should have known and did, in fact, know), ganache is really not a great coating for something that's going to be eaten with the fingers, unless it's going to be eaten in a refrigerated room. There are certainly worse things than having a bit of chocolate adhering to one's fingers so that one is forced to lick them in public, but be aware that if these have to sit at room temperature for more than a half hour, fingers will need to be licked.

Nonetheless, the individual components of the recipe have considerable merit, and had I merely split the biscuits, piped a ring of buttercream onto the top of the bottom half, added a dab of ganache in the middle of the buttercream, and put the top back on, fingers everywhere would have been a good deal safer. The resulting petits fours would not have been as pretty, of course. Perhaps I should have stuck with the ganache and made some praline and coated the sides of the petits fours with ground praline, but that would have been too much, even for me.

Anyway, the biscuits themselves were very tasty, though I might add a touch more ground and/or candied ginger next time, though that will likely depend on the context in which they are to be used. It also occurs to me that I might greatly reduce the amount of baking powder, roll them thinner, cook them in a more moderate oven and just sandwich two together. But I might not.

Orange-Ginger Biscuits

6 ounces all purpose flour
6 ounces cake flour
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 t. salt
2 t. baking powder
1 t. powdered ginger
3 T. minced candied ginger
Grated zest of one orange
4 ounces butter, very cold and cut into bits
1 egg
1/2 cup sour cream
1 t. vanilla extract

Orange glaze

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees.

Combine the flours, sugar, salt, baking powder and ginger in a bowl and whisk to combine. Add the ginger and orange zest and either whisk or use your fingers to separate the tiny pieces of ginger and coat them with flour. Add the butter and do the same thing.

Combine the egg, sour cream, and vanilla and mix well. Add to the dry ingredients and toss well with a big fork. You could do this in a stand mixer or food processor if you prefer. Add enough milk (probably between two and four tablespoons) to form a soft dough.

Turn onto a well-floured board or marble and roll out 1/2-inch thick. Cut the dough into small rounds and place the rounds on cookie sheets. Re-roll the scraps until all of the dough has been cut into rounds.

Bake at 400 degrees for 16-18 minutes, or until the tops are lightly browned. Makes about sixty-six (very) small biscuits.

As with any biscuit, you want your dough to be as soft and wet as is consistent with still being able to handle it. You may be tempted to cook the biscuits for longer so that they are well browned. Go ahead and do that, but only if you don't plan to split them. Even when baked to light brown (at which point, by the way, they taste very good), they need to be split carefully with a serrated knife to avoid crumbling.

I am very pleased with my raspberry buttercream. I almost always make cooked buttercreams, often from recipes out of Rose Levy Beranbaum's The Cake Bible, modified only in that I typically use twice as many whole eggs as she uses egg yolks. Those buttercreams are delicious, but I am never very amused by the step that involves my pouring boiling syrup onto the egg yolks while the mixer is running.

I wondered whether I could keep essentially the same proportions but cook the eggs and sugar together directly over low heat as if I were making a custard sauce, then let that mixture cool and beat the butter directly into it. As it happens, I could. The only wrinkle was that if you start with just eggs and sugar, you may or may not be able to get all the sugar to dissolve in the eggs before the mixture thickens. I decided to add some raspberry liqueur at the beginning of the process to speed the dissolution of the sugar. This idea worked very well, except that I wasn't using the very best raspberry liqueur, and the result was a bit brown. Fortunately, I had already planned to add some heated and sieved raspberry preserves to provide a stronger raspberry flavor, and the end result was a not-unattractive light pink. It is likely, however, that I'll try to find some paste food colors before I use the leftover buttercream for this coming weekend's party. (Some of my friends like to think that they're butch, and I think that it might be impolitic to let on that I know better.) In any case, the finished buttercream was silky and delicious. It was soft, but it held its shape very well.

I very rarely use a double boiler, and I didn't use one here, but if you're nervous about cooking eggs and sugar over direct heat, then by all means use a double boiler. I think that if you whisk more or less constantly (but not all that quickly), and if you have a pan with rounded sides, and if you use moderate-low heat, it's not that hard to avoid curdling. You do need to watch the custard closely and be aware that once it starts to thicken, it will get to the very thick consistency that you want very quickly. If by chance you get some curdling, then just go ahead and run the custard through the blender.

The butter needs to be at a cool room temperature. It should be softened, but not warm.

Raspberry Buttercream

3 eggs
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup raspberry liqueur
1 small jar raspberry preserves
1 pound butter, softened
1 T. rum

Heat the raspberry preserves, either in the microwave or in a small saucepan. Put a sieve or strainer over a bowl and dump the heated preserves into it. Push through with a rubber spatula. Discard the seeds.

Combine the eggs, sugar, and raspberry in a saucepan. Whisk well to combine, then place over moderate-low heat. Continue whisking to dissolve all the sugar. Cook, whisking all the while, until the custard is very thick. Do not boil.

Whisk in the sieved raspberry preserves, and turn the mixture into the bowl of your stand mixer. With the whisk attachment, whisk for five to ten minutes, or until the mixture reaches a warm room temperature. With the mixer running, add the butter a tablespoon at a time, letting each addition incorporate before going on to the next. When all the butter is incorporated, mix in the rum.

If you happen to have a thermometer handy, you'll find that the custard is about 185 degrees when it reaches the thick custard stage, but you really don't need a thermometer.


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