Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The crème brûlée

You take a mandarin in your hand and you press your finger against and into the peel. You rip part of it open and the small molecules of juice and heady aroma come flying out into the air and penetrate the nostrils. They make you salivate with anticipation before you have even laid eyes on the flesh of the fruit. The aroma is unsurpassed, that fresh aroma, the sweet, tangy promise of juicy fruit.

Mandarin. Mandarin. Mandarin. My favorite fruit of this time of year, early spring. I'm not looking at strawberries yet, no, not yet. Too soon. Not when there's still time to enjoy the mandarin. Its wrinkled orange skin and those little green leaves coming out every which way from its stem, is a beautiful sight.

Juiced, the mandarin makes the most refreshing drink, especially during the first hot days of spring. Eaten in segments, as a snack or after a meal, it can substitute a whole dessert with its unparalleled sweet flavor. Used in desserts, you might as well have hit the jackpot.

Mandarin crème brûlée can possibly be the most exciting dessert I've made in a long time, especially since I got to use my new toy. Remember this?

Crème brûlée may sound all difficult and complicated but trust me, it's not. It's burnt cream. You make a custard, you bake it in the oven until set, you then sprinkle some golden sugar on top and brûlée, or burn it, until a hard caramel is formed that cracks the minute you sink your spoon in it.

The blow-torching part may sound intimidating—S was actually afraid I was going to burn the apartment down, and granted he has reason to believe that, but I'm not going into any details right now—, but it's so incredibly easy to do.

The crème brûlée has a delicate, smooth and creamy texture, with an elegant and fresh mandarin flavor and a sweet, hard and crisp caramel topping. Not too sweet, even though you get a sugar rush once you bite into the caramel, leaving you with a fine, subtle mandarin aftertaste that lingers on long after you have finished eating the dessert. That's what this is; the splendid mandarin crème brûlée.

Mandarin Crème Brûlée
Adapted from here

What I love about this recipe, is the fact that you don't have to stand over the stovetop, stirring the custard until it thickens, which is what happens with some crème brûlée recipes. In this case, the custard is thickened as it cooks and sets in the oven. This results in an even more creamy and velvet-like texture.

I experimented with both fine and coarse demerara sugar for the caramel topping and I found that the finer the sugar, the easier it melts and caramelizes. I prefer demerara sugar over white sugar, because it has a more robust and full flavor, but white caster sugar will do as well. Don't use brown sugar, since it burns before it has a chance to melt and caramelize.

A blow torch is commonly used for caramelizing the sugar on top of the cream but if you don't have one, then no worries, you can use your oven grill.

Yield: 8 small or 4 large ramekins (about 1 liter of custard)

5 large egg yolks
3 large eggs
110 g caster sugar
120 ml mandarin juice, freshly squeezed (juice from 3 large mandarins)
590 ml cream, full-fat
20 g mandarin zest (from 6 large mandarins)
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
½ tsp salt

About 1 Tbsp fine demerara sugar (or white caster sugar) for each ramekin, for the caramel topping

Special equipment: rasp grater, fine sieve, 6 small (about 150 ml capacity) or 4 large and shallow (about 230 ml capacity) heatproof ramekins, large baking pan

In a large bowl, add the egg yolks, eggs, caster sugar and mandarin juice, and whisk lightly, until the eggs break apart and the ingredients are blended.

In a medium-sized, heavy-bottomed saucepan, add the cream and the mandarin zest and heat over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until it starts to simmer. Turn the heat off and let steep for 35-40 minutes.

Preheat your oven to 175 degrees Celsius.

Turn the heat on to medium and reheat the cream, stirring often, until it just starts to simmer. Turn the heat off and very slowly, pour the warm cream over the egg mixture, whisking quickly and continuously, being careful not to scramble your eggs.

Add the pure vanilla extract and the salt to your custard and whisk to combine.
Pour the custard through a fine sieve and into another large bowl. Discard the mandarin zest.

Place your ramekins into a large enough baking pan to fit them all. Fill the ramekins with the custard by 3/4 each. Fill the baking pan with enough boiling water to come 3/4 up the sides of the ramekins. Cover with aluminum foil and place the pan carefully on the lower rack of the oven.

Note: You can fill the baking pan with water once you put it in the oven so you don't run the risk of spilling the water in the ramekins.

Bake the custards until just set, about 20 minutes for small ramekins and 30 for larger ones. Check them 5 minutes earlier to make sure you're on the right track, and since not all ovens are the same, to make sure that the custards have not overcooked. Check doneness by gently touching with your finger the center of the custard. It needs to be wobbly but set, not liquid. It mustn't be hard in the middle.
Do not overcook the custards because that will ruin their creamy texture.

Remove the baking pan from the oven and remove the ramekins from the pan. Place them on a wire rack and allow the custards to come to room temperature. Cover them with plastic wrap and place them in the refrigerator to thoroughly chill, about 3 hours.

At this point, you can keep the custards covered and refrigerated for up to 4 days.

When you want to serve a custard, take the ramekin out of the fridge and continue with the brûlée part as instructed below.

How to brûlée the custard
Take the custards out of the refrigerator and sprinkle the tops with about 1 Tbsp sugar for each ramekin (with enough sugar to cover the cream).

• With a blow torch
Take the blow torch, turn it on to high, and burn the sugar with swift, swirling motions, until it takes on a rich golden-brown to deep brown color, it caramelizes and hardens.

• In the oven
Turn your oven grill on to high and place the custards at the top rack of the oven, the one closer to the grill. The sugar needs to melt and harden as quickly as possible or the cream underneath will overcook, so make sure the grill is nice and hot before you put them in. Allow the sugar to caramelize for 1-2 minutes, until it takes on a rich golden-brown to deep brown color, and hardens.
The result of the grilling is not the same you get with the blow torch but it's pretty close.

Serve them immediately.

Note: Once you have brûléed the custards, they need to be eaten straight away. Do not put them back in the fridge. If you do, the caramel will soften and become liquid.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The loaf

Today, I made the most beautiful loaf of bread.

If it was possible for someone to fall in love with bread, I would be in love with this loaf.

And it's not all looks, it has substance, baby.

Moist, airy, delicious crumb.

Super crispy, caramelized, crunchy crust (all the good 'c' words).

This is sourdough bread. My sourdough bread that I made with my own sourdough starter. Yes. I made a sourdough starter and he's the best (it's a he. I won't tell you his name yet. I'm a bit shy).

Here, accompanied by my new favorite find, the juicy kumato—I'm crazy about its sweet flavor—and a sprinkling of Maldon sea salt flakes.

So, no recipe today, just a blatant display of my bread-baking accomplishments.

I'll be back, talking your ear off again, soon.
Till then!

P.S. I'm currently obsessed with this song. '86 rules.

And don't forget, "it takes guts to be gentle and kind".

Thursday, March 15, 2012

A green soup

I used to make fun of the Dutch when, in the early spring, they would go out on their balconies every time the sun came out even for a few minutes, lie on their large lounge chairs and soak it in. Now, I'm doing the exact same thing.

I find myself missing the Greek sun more and more each day and my face and body seem to yearn for the sunshine, now more than ever before.

Its Dutch counterpart has finally made its appearance. These past few days we have been having nothing but sunshine. The curtains in my apartment are wide open, my home is filled with sunlight in the morning and, in the evening, when the sun sets, I can see the orange-mauve colors at the horizon.

The days are longer and now I revel in the warm rays. I soak in the gentle heat and light. I feel like a sunflower, my movements directed by the gleaming star. If I could photosynthesize, I would produce the most glorious shade of green.

Speaking of green, I promised you a soup, a green soup, and here it is. It is one of my favorite creamy, vegetable soups, one with broccoli and potato, onions and olive oil and milk. You don't need much else. No cream, no butter, just a side of toasted bread topped with some good kefalotyri cheese.

So effortless, so unassuming, so delicious. Blended but, if you wish, not completely, leaving a few bits and pieces of vegetables to bite into, light, in a late winter kind of way when you need to shed off the bold flavors of sturdy soups, and paired exquisitely with the crunch of the cheesed-up bread.

Pour it into large mugs or simple soup bowls, eat it while standing in front of a window, your face bathed in the sun rays, the same ones that hit that bright green-colored soup, and marvel in the joy of pure, unadulterated, good food.

Creamy Broccoli Soup with Kefalotyri Toasts
Adapted from Rachel Allen

The flavor of this creamy soup is slightly sweet, with a mellow broccoli taste, all the nuances of onion and potato, and a delicate hint of olive oil. You'll be tempted to add cream and butter to it instead of milk and olive oil but don't. I assure you, it doesn't need those flavors. Keep it light.
The kefalotyri toasts add umaminess and a gentle, welcomed tang to the soup. If you can't find the Greek kefalotyri, use parmesan or its underrated cousin, grana padano, which I love.

The onions and potatoes need to "sweat", which means to cook but not take on a golden brown color while doing so, so a baking (parchment) paper circle is utilized as a lid and is put on top. The baking paper doesn't allow any steam to escape, thus allowing the vegetables to cook but not burn.
Read here on how to easily make a baking paper circle.

Yield: 6-8 soup servings

45 ml (3 Tbsp) olive oil plus extra for drizzling over the soup
2 medium-sized onions (about 300 g), chopped
2 medium-sized potatoes (about 300 g), cut into 2-3 cm cubes
2 fresh broccoli heads (about 1,200 g)
1 ½ chicken or vegetable stock cubes*
800 ml water
100 ml whole milk, at room temperature
Freshly ground black pepper

Chives, chopped, for garnishing the soup

A little freshly squeezed lemon juice (optional)

1 baguette or country-style bread, sliced
50 g kefalotyri (or parmesan or grana padano), grated

* or 800 ml homemade (or store-bought) stock - if you use stock in liquid form, don't add the 800 ml water.

Special equipment: baking paper, immersion blender or regular blender or food processor, rasp grater for the cheese


Clean and cut the broccoli
Rinse the broccoli heads under running water. Cut the florets off the stem, using a large and sharp knife, and cut them into smaller pieces. Place them in a large bowl. Take the stems and, using your knife, cut the bottom 1 cm off. Then, cut off the outer layer of the stems. This outer layer is tough and needs to be discarded. Cut the rest of the stems into smaller pieces and place in another bowl. You need to keep the stems and florets separate because they have different cooking times (the stems are tougher so they need more time to cook).

Prepare the soup
Heat the olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pan, over medium-high heat and when it starts to shimmer, add the chopped onions. Sauté for about 4 minutes, stirring continuously so they don't color, until they soften and become translucent.
Add the potatoes and sauté for 1 minute, stirring continuously. Turn heat down to low and add a little salt and pepper.
Place a lightly oiled (with olive oil) round piece of baking paper on top of the potatoes and onions, covering them completely. The paper needs to be in contact with the vegetables. Put the lid on the pan.

After 10-15 minutes have passed, check on the potatoes and if they are almost cooked, add the broccoli stem pieces, discarding the baking paper. In case the potatoes are still tough, cook until they soften a bit. Add the stock cubes and water (or homemade stock) and stir well. Turn heat up to high, put the lid back on and boil for 5-10 minutes, until the broccoli stems have softened.

Add the broccoli florets and a little more salt and pepper and stir well. Put on the lid and allow the soup to come to the boil. Once it does, immediately remove the lid. By removing the lid you ensure that the broccoli won't lose its bright green color. Boil for 3-5 minutes or until the broccoli florets soften.
Then add the milk, stir well and turn the heat off.

Blend the soup directly in the pan with an immersion blender or, if you're using a regular blender or food processor, add a ladleful at a time to it, blending as you do, until you have blended all of the soup to a creamy consistency.
You can opt for not blending everything into oblivion but leaving some small pieces of broccoli or potato intact. They will certainly give a nice contrast to the creamy soup.
Check the seasoning and adjust if necessary.

Prepare the kefalotyri toasts
In the meantime, preheat your oven to 190 degrees Celsius.
Place the sliced bread on a baking paper-lined baking sheet and add the grated cheese on top. Place the baking sheet on the top rack of your oven and toast the bread. When the cheese has melted and the bread has taken on a golden brown color, after about 4 minutes, remove the baking sheet from the oven.

Serve the soup into soup bowls or large mugs, sprinkle with some chopped chives and drizzle a little olive oil on top. Squeeze a little fresh lemon juice over the top if you want. Accompany with the toasted, cheesed-up bread and enjoy!

How to make a baking (parchment) paper circle

It's the easiest thing to do yet not many people know how.
Here's how to do it.

Special equipment: baking paper, scissors.

• Take a piece of baking paper, a bit larger than the area you want to cover.

• Fold it in half.

• Fold in half again.

• Fold it into a triangle.

• Fold it again into a smaller triangle.

• Take the pan you want to line, turn it upside down, and place the tip of your baking paper in the middle of the pan.

• Mark with your finger where you want to cut it (just inside the outer edge of the pan), take the scissors and cut a straight line through it.

• Unfold it and place it on the bottom of your baking pan.

If, by chance, it's too big, fold it again and cut it with the scissors.

Use it to line a baking pan or use it as a lid for cooking.

You will find this helpful in the following recipes:

Creamy Broccoli Soup with Kefalotyri Toasts

Honey Bee Chocolate Cake with Sticky Chocolate Glaze

Lemon, Polenta and Yoghurt Cake with Poached Apricots

Mango Tiramisu with Raspberry Sauce

Two-layered Chocolate Easter Egg Nest Cake with Truffle Eggs

Thursday, March 8, 2012


I love the color green. It calms me, much like blue calms others.

It always catches my eye, everywhere. Especially in nature.

Holland is a very green country, filled with greens of every hue, especially during spring and summer.

Still, I managed to find the brightest green not during the most "green" months of the year but in late February, in the woods, in The Hague.

Greener than green.

A park filled with green-toed giants.

I will be sharing with you a soup featuring the color green, soon.

In the meantime, stay green, and I don't mean with envy.


to see the beauty that is honey,

hear the sound of reindeer,

see the work of a Greek photographer,

and hear the song I've been listening to again and again and again lately.

Previously: Inspiration (November 2011)