Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Three cheese, mushroom and saucisson sec puff pastry tart

For many of us in charge of cooking for the holiday table, these days are anything but calm and relaxing. For some, they are filled with anxiety and frustration because, let’s not kid ourselves, having to cook for a large number of people is not a piece of cake no matter how experienced you are. And if you are a perfectionist? Well, then you really are screwed.

Being kind to yourself and letting go of the stress and the need to be perfect is key to enjoying the fruit of your labors. Besides, you are not doing this only for your guests, but for yourself too! And believe me, your guests are there for you, not for your food.

For me, the secret to surviving these frantic, crazy days of celebrations and dinner parties is to cook easy, tried and tested dishes that you know will satisfy your guests and that will not keep you captive in the kitchen for hours. One such dish is a savory puff pastry tart.

This one with three different kinds of cheeses, mushrooms and saucisson sec is really delicious. Earthy, sweet, salty, spicy, creamy, crisp and buttery, with flaky and crispy puff pastry, spicy and salty salami, rich and slightly tangy crème fraîche, earthy mushrooms with deep, umami flavor, and with each cheese —mild Brie, creamy Gruyère and intense Grana Padano— giving its own character to the tart creating an exquisite combination of flavors and textures.

I wish you all a Happy and Healthy New Year, with lots of tasty adventures.

Three cheese, mushroom and saucisson sec puff pastry tart

I used a variety of mushrooms (shiitake, chestnut, chanterelles, white and brown shimeji) because I enjoy the different textures and flavors they give the tart but you could use any kind of fresh mushrooms you can find.

You can use any other dry-cured pork salami if you can’t find saucisson sec with pepper (French dry-cured pork sausage).

For those of you living in Greece, you can substitute if you want the Gruyère with Greek Graviera, and the Grana Padano with Greek Kefoltyri. The flavors are not exactly the same but they are close.

Yield: 1 tart / 6-8 pieces

1 homemade or store-bought puff pastry sheet (about 270 g), trimmed to a 37 x 25 cm rectangle
1 red onion (about 100 g), sliced thinly
1 garlic clove, mashed
2 Tbsp olive oil
50 g Gruyère, finely grated
50 g Grana Padano, finely grated
125 ml crème fraîche, full-fat
1 medium-sized egg
Freshly ground black pepper
250 g assorted fresh mushrooms
Grated lemon zest, from 1 small lemon
3 fresh thyme sprigs, leaves picked
7-8 slices saucisson sec with pepper (or any other salami you prefer)

1 small egg, lightly beaten with a fork, for glazing the pastry

20 g Brie, cut into small pieces

A little olive oil, for drizzling on top of the tart
3-4 fresh thyme sprigs, to garnish

Special equipment: baking sheet, baking paper, pastry brush

In a small frying pan heat 1 Tbsp of the olive oil and sauté the onions over low heat, stirring frequently, until they are very soft, for about 8 minutes. One minute before they are done, add the garlic. Remove from the heat and leave to cool in the pan.

Place your trimmed puff pastry rectangle (37 x 25 cm) on a large piece of baking paper that is set on top of a baking sheet. Using a knife, lightly score a 3 cm frame around the pastry, being careful not to cut all the way down, and place it in the fridge.

In a large bowl, add the cooled onions and garlic, the grated Gruyère and Grana Padano, the crème fraîche, the medium-sized egg and a little black pepper and mix well with a spoon to combine. Place the mixture in the fridge for 30 minutes to firm up.

Preheat your oven to 200°C.

Slice the mushrooms (if you’re using enoki and shimeji, you don’t need to slice them because they are very small) and add them to a large bowl together with 1 Tbsp of the olive oil, the grated lemon zest, the picked leaves from 3 fresh thyme sprigs, a little salt and black pepper. Toss well to mix.

Take the puff pastry and the cheese-egg-crème fraîche mixture out of the fridge and spread the cheese mixture evenly inside the frame of the pastry. Top with ¾ of the mushroom mixture (keep the rest ¼ of the mushrooms in the bowl) making sure to spread them around the pastry evenly. In between the mushrooms tuck in the saucisson slices.

Return the pastry in the fridge, for 10 minutes.

Note: I do this in order for the puff pastry to be super chilled before it goes in the oven to ensure that it puffs up correctly. Room temperature puff pastry doesn’t puff up as well as a very chilled one.

Brush the frame of the pastry with the beaten egg and place the baking sheet on the middle rack of the preheated oven. Bake the tart for about 30 minutes. After the initial 15 minutes of baking, scatter the rest of the mushroom mixture on top of the tart. Five minutes before the tart is ready, scatter the Brie pieces around the top of the tart.

The tart is done when the pastry has puffed up and has taken on a golden color, the filling has cooked and the cheeses have melted evenly.

Note: The reason I add some of the mushrooms after the tart has been baking for 15 minutes is because the filling puffs up and some of the mushrooms get buried inside it. By adding some of the mushrooms later, firstly you achieve different textures and secondly the mushrooms remain visible and your tart is more visually appealing.

Remove the tart from the oven, drizzle with some olive oil and garnish with 3-4 thyme sprigs.
Serve the tart immediately cut into pieces.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Beijinhos de coco – Brazilian coconut balls

I can’t go through the holiday season without making some sort of truffle or bite-sized sweet and this year wasn’t going to be different. This year, I made beijinhos de coco which are little balls of coconut goodness. They are from Brazil and the recipe was given to me by a Brazilian former colleague of mine after I tried them at her home and went crazy over them.

They are deliciously sweet and very coconuty, and needless to say, if you are not a coconut lover, these are not for you. Made with sweetened condensed milk, desiccated coconut and just a tad of butter, they’re incredibly easy and quick to make, and they are so cute.

They make the best little gifts and treats for any occasion; I made them for my birthday early last month as a special treat for my guests, I made them a few days ago to give to friends as edible Christmas gifts and I brought another batch to a Christmas potluck. They make the perfect little sweet bites and their snowy white color screams Christmas holidays. Hope you enjoy them as well.

Have a Happy and Sweet Christmas, dear friends. Have fun!

Beijinhos de coco – Brazilian coconut balls

Beijinho (pronunciation: bay-zee-new) means little kiss in Portuguese and speaking of kisses, and since it’s Christmastime, allow me to remind you these baci di dama (Italian hazelnut and almond cookies with chocolate filling) that are among my favorite sandwich cookies.

Brazilian desserts are famously sweet and these are truly Brazilian. But they’re only a bite (or two) so if you pace yourself and have just one, you’re okay!

Traditionally, they are decorated with a single clove that you stick on top, but I don’t enjoy the flavor of clove so I skip that part. Also, another version of beijinhos involve rolling the balls in granulated white sugar instead of desiccated coconut but I wouldn’t encourage you try that version because it’s too sweet.

Yield: 60 beijinhos

800 g (2 cans) sweetened condensed milk
200 g unsweetened desiccated coconut, plus extra for rolling
2 Tbsp unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus extra for greasing plate and hands
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
Pinch of salt

Special equipment: heatproof spatula or wooden spoon, small paper cups (those that are meant for truffles)

Grease a large plate with butter.

In a medium-sized non-stick pan or saucepan, add the sweetened condensed milk, coconut, butter, vanilla and salt and place over a medium heat. Using a heatproof spatula or a wooden spoon, stir continuously until the mixture thickens and you can see the bottom of the pan when you cut through the mixture with the spatula/spoon and the mixture starts to pull away from the sides and bottom of the pan. It should take about 9 minutes.

Empty the mixture immediately onto the greased plate and spread it as much as you can. Leave to cool to room temperature.

Note: Don’t place the mixture in the fridge to cool because it will harden too much and you won’t be able to roll it properly into balls.

In a medium baking dish add enough desiccated coconut to cover the bottom in a thick layer.

Grease lightly the palm of your hands with some butter, take small pieces of the mixture and roll them into small balls the size of a small walnut. The beijinho should be one large bite (or two small ones). Place the ball into the baking dish with the desiccated coconut and roll it around to coat it. Then place it into the small paper cup and continue rolling and coating the others.

The beijinhos will keep at room temperature, covered, for 2 days. They will keep for 1 week in the fridge, kept in an airtight container. At room temperature, the beijinhos are soft (not too soft) and chewy. When you keep them in the fridge, they harden and set but remain chewy (they are like Bounty bars without the chocolate).

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Garlic bread with herbs

Bread is my weakness. I couldn’t live without it even if I tried and my main meals have to include at least one slice or I can’t enjoy them. I’m not ashamed to say that I eat bread even with pasta or potatoes. Starch on starch. I know, shame on me, but I can’t help it.

I love making my own bread, as these recipes attest, but what I love even more is using it to make garlic bread, like this rustic one with herbs; because another thing that I can’t live without is garlic.

This is seriously good and seriously addictive and if you too are a bread lover like me, then I suggest you be careful when you make this or you may end up eating the whole loaf on your own.

It’s so easy to make; you slice the loaf into thick slices but not all the way down because you want to keep it in one piece, you mix some extra virgin olive oil with some good butter and the ever present Greek dried oregano, and slather each slice with the mixture. In between the slices you gently tuck some fresh rosemary and thyme sprigs, you wrap the loaf with aluminum foil and off it goes in the oven. You remove the foil to crisp it up a bit and voilà. The best garlic bread ever.

It has a crispy crust and a soft and moist crumb from the butter and olive oil, and it is deeply flavorful. The garlic is present yet not overpowering, while the herbs give a woody flavor and aroma. It is perfect as an accompaniment to Christmas meats (turkey, ham etc.) but also perfect with grilled steaks, burgers or lamb chops.

Garlic bread with herbs
Adapted from here

This is perfect warm from the oven, sliced and served at the table on a nice wooden board or on a big platter.

The quantities for this recipe are for a loaf of bread that is about 10 slices.

Yield: 1 garlic bread (about 10 slices)

1 loaf of crusty country bread (I used my own rye country bread)
2 garlic cloves, peeled and mashed
100 g unsalted butter, at room temperature
45 ml (3 Tbsp) extra virgin olive oil
½ tsp Greek dried oregano
Freshly ground black pepper
5-6 sprigs of fresh thyme
2 sprigs of fresh rosemary

Special equipment: large serrated knife, aluminum foil

Preheat your oven to 200°C.

In a small plate or bowl, add the butter, olive oil, garlic, oregano and a little salt and freshly ground black pepper and using a fork mix everything to combine.

Using a large serrated knife cut the bread into thick-ish slices. Be careful not to go all the way down because you need the loaf to stay as a whole and the slices to stay attached at the bottom.

Using a butter knife, spread the butter-garlic mixture generously on both sides of each slice being careful not to detach the slices.
Tuck the thyme and rosemary sprigs in between the slices.

Wrap the loaf well with one large piece of aluminum foil and place on the middle rack of the preheated oven. Bake for 20 minutes. Then turn the temperature up to 225°C, take the bread out of the oven, unwrap the foil to expose the top crust of the bread and return in the oven to crisp up the top, for further 10 minutes.

Note: Not all breads are the same, some have more moisture in them than others so after the initial 20 minutes of baking, unwrap and check if your bread is crispy on top. If it is, there’s no need to bake further. If it’s not crispy on top, then continue baking on the higher temperature for 10 more minutes.

Remove from the oven, discard the aluminum foil and serve immediately. Remove the herbs from in between the slices before eating. This bread is best served warm, but I’d never say not to it when it’s at room temperature either.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Kale chips, the Greek way

One of the things that happen during the holiday season is that wherever you go, wherever you look, there are sweet and salty treats that you can’t possibly ignore or resist.

Those sweet and salty nibbles can make even the most strong-willed person cave and have one, two, three or a dozen of them in an instant. They are dangerous, especially if you’re trying to be careful with what you eat.

Since I’m making a conscious effort this year to eat better during the holidays and not be as vulnerable to the allure of snacks as I usually am, I plan ahead and make my own snacks that are a bit more chaste, to have on hand whenever I feel the need to binge on the bad stuff. Besides, I prefer to enjoy my main festive meals and have some dessert afterwards rather than falling head first into the snack bowls.

One of the snacks I love is kale chips. I know, how virtuous of me. Well, it’s not like that, I really enjoy them, especially when I toss them with extra virgin olive oil and dried oregano and then sprinkle them with lemon zest. That’s my way to go, the Greek way.

Kale, by the way, and curly kale in particular, is a beloved vegetable here in the Netherlands (ages before it became trendy around the world). It is one of the most traditional Dutch vegetables and is included in many Dutch dishes with the most representative one being the stamppot, which is a potato and vegetable mash served with a rookworst (Dutch smoked pork sausage) on top. This dish is too hardcore for my Greek palate, so I prefer to add my Dutch kale to Greek phyllo pies, to bruschette and of course use it to make chips.

I make these regularly because I love the slightly bitter flavor of kale but also because I love crispy textures, and these crisp up so well in the oven.

So without further ado, I bring you my kale chips. They are slightly bitter, sweet and earthy with a wonderful herbaceous flavor from the Greek dried oregano and a pleasant zing from the lemon zest. Give them a try!

Kale chips, the Greek way

Kale chips are very versatile. You can make them not only with dried oregano but with all sorts of dried herbs, with smoked sea salt, with cheese like parmesan or Kefalotyri if you want to go Greek, with all kinds of pepper (hot smoked paprika is my favorite).

If you can’t find curly kale, you can use any other type of kale to make these easy and quick chips.

Be careful with the salt. Kale doesn’t need too much.

Yield: enough for 2 people

185 g fresh whole curly kale leaves (after removing the veins and stems they were about 120 g)
1 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
½ tsp Greek dried oregano
Sea salt, to taste

Grated zest from 1 lemon, for serving

Special equipment: one or two baking sheets (depending on the size of your oven), baking paper

Preheat your oven to 175°C.
Line one or two baking sheets (depending on the size of your oven) with baking paper.

Rinse the kale leaves under cold running water and dry them very well with a clean kitchen towel or with absorbent kitchen paper. This is a must otherwise when you bake the kale it will steam rather than crisp up.

Remove the central, thick vein of each kale leaf as well as the stems and cut with your hands the leaves into large pieces.

Place kale in a large bowl, drizzle the olive oil on top, add the oregano and a little salt, and massage the kale with your hands in order to coat every piece with the oil. Spread evenly and in one layer the kale pieces on top of the baking sheets.

Bake on the middle rack of the oven for 12-13 minutes or until the leaves look crisp and have taken on a golden color around the edges. You can give them a taste before taking them out of the oven to ensure they have crisped up properly.

Remove from the oven and leave to cool before emptying them into a large bowl. Taste and add more salt if needed, add the lemon zest and toss gently with your hands. Enjoy!

If you want to store them, wrap them loosely in baking paper or kitchen paper and place them in a plastic bag but do not seal the bag. Keep them like that for a couple of days.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Naked chocolate layer cake with vanilla chantilly cream

You should never need an excuse to make a cake, but especially during the holidays when gluttony is permitted, nay encouraged, and the word regret is not even in your vocabulary, it may as well be considered a food group.

You may have noticed that I like simple cakes, not elaborate ones with lots of frills. I prefer simplicity of flavors but also a natural appearance and modest decoration.

My main concern is the flavors and how they pair and complement each other rather than how intricate a cake might look. Having said that, I eat with my eyes first (don’t we all?) and I do like my cakes to look cute.

In this case, I needn’t do a lot to pretty up this one. A few red currants —those inherently festive little fruits— were enough to transform this simple, bicolored cake into a celebratory dessert.

The cake has two components; a chocolate cake and a vanilla chantilly cream. The chocolate cake is moist, soft and slightly dense but not heavy, with a deep chocolate flavor, with bitter notes from the cocoa and coffee, and a bit of molasses sweetness from the light brown sugar. It sandwiches a perfectly billowy chantilly cream spiked with vanilla that is light and faintly sweet and that offsets the chocolate cake perfectly.

The whole cake feels balanced, light and not too indulgent, fitting for a holiday dinner when you have already eaten too much and you want something flavorful that’s not too sweet or heavy.

It is an elegant naked cake with the intense flavor of chocolate and the aroma of vanilla making its presence known. What more could one want from a cake? Hope you enjoy it!

P.S. This is my last submission for the Greek VIMA Gourmet Food Blog Awards competition and the category “Best Sweet Treats”. The competition ends this Monday (14 December) so if you wish, I’d be grateful if you voted for me here for Best Cooking Blog, here for Best Sweet Treats and here for Best Food Photography & Styling by clicking the “like” button below the Greek text and next to where it says “Like for Vote” in each category. Thank you very much for your support!

Naked chocolate layer cake with vanilla chantilly cream

Naked cakes are layer cakes that don’t have a frosting applied to their circumference thus (in many cases) showing the texture of its individual components.

This cake is also perfect for a birthday or any other celebration that calls for cake.

The coating of the pan with cocoa powder instead of flour is intentional and serves a purpose; since the sides of the chocolate cake will show, I didn’t want it to have visible white patches from the flour. Instead, I wanted an accentuated dark color to contrast the white color of the chantilly cream.

I also recently discovered a new way to evenly cut my cakes in half and I’m very excited about it. Read on to find out the method.

Yield: 1 layered cake / 12-14 slices


for the chocolate cake
120 g good quality dark chocolate (70% cocoa solids), finely chopped
25 g (2 Tbsp) good quality Dutch-processed cocoa powder, plus extra for coating the inside of the pans
5 g (1 Tbsp) instant coffee granules
240 ml boiling water
295 g all-purpose flour
10 g (2 tsp) baking powder
6 g (1 tsp) baking soda
3 g (½ tsp) salt
225 g unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus extra for greasing the pans
200 g white caster sugar
200 g soft light-brown sugar
3 large eggs, at room temperature
2 tsp vanilla bean paste or pure vanilla extract
240 ml fresh whole milk, at room temperature

for the chantilly cream
500 ml cream, full-fat (35%)
27 g icing sugar, sieved
1 vanilla bean, seeds scraped, or 1 tsp vanilla bean paste (or pure vanilla extract)

to decorate
Fresh red currants
A few small fresh mint leaves

Special equipment: fine sieve, two round 18cm springform baking pans, baking paper, stand mixer or hand-held electric mixer, large serrated knife, frosting spatulas (large straight and small offset)


for the chocolate cake
Place the chopped chocolate, cocoa powder and coffee granules in a medium-sized heatproof bowl and pour over the boiling water. Leave for 1 minute and then mix lightly with a whisk until the chocolate is melted and you have a smooth mixture. Set aside to cool completely.

Butter the bottom and sides of two 18cm springform pans. Line the bottom with baking paper (see here how to make a baking paper circle) and butter it. Coat the inside of the pans with cocoa powder and tap the excess out.

Preheat your oven to 180°C.

In another medium-sized bowl sieve together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt.

In the bowl of a stand mixer (or in a large bowl), add the butter and sugars and beat, using the paddle attachment (or a hand-held mixer), on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, for about 5 minutes.
Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition until fully incorporated. Add the vanilla and the cooled chocolate mixture and beat on medium speed until just combined. Then add the flour in 3 additions alternating with the milk (in 2 additions) in this way: with your mixer working on low speed, add 1/3 of the sieved ingredients and beat until just combined, then add half of the milk and beat until just combined, then beat in another 1/3 of the sieved ingredients, then the rest of the milk, and finally, add the rest of the sieved ingredients and beat until just combined. Do not over-beat the mixture or the cake will be tough.

Divide the batter between the two baking pans. I weigh the mixture and divide it in half between the two pans, but if you don’t want to use a scale, eyeball it. Smooth the tops with the back of a spoon or a small offset spatula.

Place both pans on the middle rack of the preheated oven and bake for about 1 hour and 20 minutes, or until a wooden skewer inserted in the middle of the cakes comes out clean, the cake has started to pull from the sides of the pan and the top is springy to the touch. Be careful not to overbake otherwise the cakes will be dry. You can loosely place a piece of aluminum foil on top towards the end of the baking time if the cakes get too dark.

Remove the pans from the oven and place on a wire rack to cool for about 10 minutes. Then remove cakes from the pans and leave to cool on the wire rack completely.

You can make the cakes a day ahead, wrap them with plastic wrap and keep them at room temperature in a dry place.

for the chantilly cream
In the bowl of a stand mixer (or in a large bowl), add the cream, the icing sugar and the scraped vanilla seeds (or vanilla bean paste or extract) and using the whisk attachment (or an electric hand-held mixer), beat on high speed until medium peaks form. Not too stiff and not too soft, just medium. If they’re too soft, the weight of the cake will force the chantilly cream out from the sides of the cake and if they’re too stiff, the cream will not be very easy to spread and it won’t have the right texture for the cake.

assembling the cake
Take a large serrated knife and cut the tops off the cakes to level them.
Then cut each cake into equal halves in order to have 4 equal cake layers. The new way I discovered to do that is the following. You’ll need a ruler or measuring tape and a few toothpicks. Take the ruler (or measuring tape) and hold it upright against the side of the cake. Find the middle (if the cake is 5cm high you’ll mark the 2.5cm point) and there insert a toothpick. See photos for reference. Continue doing the same all around the circumference of the cake, marking it with a total of 7-8 toothpicks. Using a long, serrated knife, cut the cake, with a gentle sawing motion, right above the toothpicks, using them as your guide and turning the cake (turning by the plate or other surface you’ve placed it on) with your other hand. Use the same toothpicks for the second cake.

Choose the plate, stand etc. where you’ll place your cake and put the bottom half of the first cake (cut side up) onto it. Add ¼ of the chantilly cream on top and spread it over the top of the cake, smoothing it out with the help of a small offset spatula (or a regular spatula). Be careful not to spread too close to the edges, leave some space for the filling to spread out when you add each layer on top. Carefully place the top half of the first cake on top (cut side down), add another ¼ of chantilly cream, spreading and smoothing it like before. Then place the top half of the second cake on top (cut side up) and add another ¼ of chantilly cream, spreading and smoothing it like before. Finally, add the bottom half of the second cake on top (cut side down) and add the rest of the chantilly cream. Spread it and smooth it with the spatula or make swirls.

Top with the fruits and serve immediately.

The cake is at its best the day it is made. You can keep it in the fridge, covered with plastic wrap for 1 day. I wouldn’t recommend you keep it for longer than that because the chantilly will dry out, unless of course you don’t mind.

Finally, a note on cutting the cake. Because the chantilly is soft, it may come out the sides of the cake when you cut it if you aren’t careful. Use a long knife with a thin blade so it doesn’t press against the cake a lot when cutting. Also, cut gently and don’t use too much force. Inevitably, some chantilly will come out the sides but not too much. I wasn’t very careful with mine, granted, but you can learn from my mistakes. ;)