Thursday, November 17, 2005

Desserts with Nick Malgieri

Let's Get Cookin' gourmet store in Westlake Village is the center of a cooking subculture. It doesn't look like much from the outside - small, with windows crowded with cook books and cooking supplies - but inside it opens up into a surprisingly large yet snug shop with a nice demo kitchen in the back.

So there are always passionate cooks stopping by to pick up some gadget or cookbook they need, or to take cooking classes. I love going there because I am among my Tribe. I know no one will think I am insane for needing a green bean slicer, a Le Creuset pan shaped like a red bell pepper, and some balsamic vinegar priced like a fine Cabernet.

There is desk space for about 25 class members. During the day and on weekends, they offer hands-on classes. During the evenings, there are demonstration classes by famous and semi-famous chefs and authors. The walls are lined with photos of the unflappable owner, Phyllis Vaccarelli, with some of the biggest names in cooking today and in the past. I always love to see Julia Child smiling down at me from that wall.

On Nov. 17, 2005 cookbook author and cooking teacher Nick Malgieri taught a dessert class. His most recent book is A Baker's Tour: Nick Malgieri's Favorite Baking Recipes from Around the World."

He prepared, from scratch, 5 recipes, including a Norwegian Princess Cake, complete with bubble-gum pink marzipan (again from scratch) topping. Pretty impressive for a 2 1/2 hour class.

Malgieri is not a flashy teacher - think of him as the anti-Emeril. But he makes up for in substance what he lacks in showmanship. He has the sort of calm, measured demeanor you expect from someone who has the patience to be a great baker. Cooks can be wild and flighty, but bakers had better have their ingredients in order.

His talk was sprinkled with useful tips and he even took time during the break to give a student a long description of how to make the caramel topping for Dobosh torte, complete with diagrams. (One hint: place the caramel layer on a bed of granulated sugar, which acts like tiny ball bearings, so you can scoot it around easily.)

Princess Cream Cake

The five things he made were a caramelized Swiss nut torte, the aforementioned Princess Cream Cake, A Viennese Bishop Torte, Torta Caprese Bianca and Jan Hagel Shortbread Cookies.

The Torta Caprese Bianca was not made with goat cheese (as the name "Caprese usually suggests), but rather was from the isle of Anacapri. Malgieri warned us that the flavor was subtle, so I was worried that I wouldn't like it. I usually crave those kind of hit-you-over-the-head flavors like chocolate and chile and rosemary. This was made with white chocolate, lemon and almonds. The white chocolate gets melted and gives the batter a lovely richness. The Torta was my favorite thing of the night - a fabulous texture and a light flavor.

My second preference were Jan Hagel Shortbreads, which Malgieri is shown making in the top photo. A very sandy-textured dough - more of a powder than a dough, really - is pressed into a parchment-lined pan. Sliced almonds are pressed on top, it is baked, and voila. Crisp, buttery cookies with just a small warm hint of cinnamon. These are the kind of cookie that I dare not make, lest I eat most of a pan at one sitting. Delicious.

The Bishop Torte was a pannetone-like cake leavened only by whipped egg whites. It is studded with chunks of chocolate and usually candied orange peel, though in this case Malgieri used candied pineapple. It is much better the second day when the flavors have had a chance to come together and the texture has tightened. I know because I ate it for breakfast.

The nut torte knocked me out, too. The filling of big chunks of walnuts in a caramel base with just a dab of honey was made for my palate. The rich buttery crust wasn't so bad, either.

I was surprised that the most spectacular dessert, the Princess Cream Cake, was the one I liked least. Layers of sponge cake are filled with whipped and pastry cream and the whole thing is encased in marzipan. One of the audience members said that she had had it with a raspberry filling, which Malgieri said he had never seen on his travels in Europe. I think it might just - pardon the expression - kick it up a notch.

Here is the complete assortment for your viewing pleasure. If you want to taste, you will just have to bust out the $35 and buy the book. Believe me, just for these recipes, it is worth it.

From the Pink Princess Cream Torte clockwise: Swiss Nut Torte, Torta Caprese Bianca, Jan Hagels, and, in the middle, Bishop Torte.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

You Do What You Eat

Despite my extensive training in nutrition (2 big classes at Cal State University, Northridge), I usually hesitate to use this blog to delve into the world of vitamins and minerals. I proceed to eat whatever I feel like and ignore the dietary consequences. I figure "I'm a vegetarian - what more do you want from me?

But this article I found on relating behavior to nutrition was so amazing that I felt I simply must post an excerpt and a link:

You Do What You Eat
by Marco Visscher
Bernard Gesch, physiologist at the University of Oxford, decided to test the anecdotal clues in the most thorough study so far in this field. In a prison for men between the ages of 18 and 21 in England's Buckinghamshire, 231 volunteers were divided into two groups: One was given nutrition supplements along with their meals that contained our approximate daily needs for vitamins, minerals and fatty acids; the other group got placebos. Neither the prisoners, nor the guards, nor the researchers at the prison knew who took fake supplements and who got the real thing.

The researchers then tallied the number of times the participants violated prison rules, and compared it to the same data that had been collected in the months leading up to the nutrition study. The prisoners given supplements for four consecutive months committed an average of 26 percent fewer violations compared to the preceding period. Those given placebos showed no marked change in behaviour. For serious breaches of conduct, particularly the use of violence, the number of violations decreased 37 percent for the men given nutrition supplements, while the placebo group showed no change.
The experiment was carefully constructed, ruling out the possibility that ethnic, social, psychological or other variables could affect the outcome. Prisons are popular places to conduct studies for good reason: There is a strict routine; participants sleep and exercise the same number of hours every day and eat the same things at the same time.

Fascinating to consider, no?

Friday, November 04, 2005

Two-Day Egg Custard

How is it that I can make something like dried ancho chiles stuffed with potatoes and chorizo in a chile-seed tomato sauce, yet a simple thing like egg custard defeats me?

Perhaps I never got around to making it in my 40-plus years of existence because of the name. "Egg custard." Are there two more ugly-sounding words in the English language. Say them. They just die on the middle palate (ok, that is one of my favorite wine-snob pronuncements (because it is pretty much undefineable and therefore unarguable)) but you get what I mean. Plah. Egg. Custard.

The other night Mr. Snackish requested egg custard. I flew into action, checking the internet for recipes because the infamous recipe bookcase was blocked by the furniture, which had been moved (and never replaced) for carpet cleaning.

Voila! A recipe for MICROWAVE egg custard. No stirring. No baking. No splashy dangerous bain marie!

I stirred together the few simple ingredients (eggs, milk, sugar, vanilla) and popped the things in the micro.

What emerged seven minutes later looked less like custard than thick, wet omelettes. I, not being too familiar with egg custard quality control, showed them to Mr. Snackish for his approval.

"What did you DO?" he wailed. "How can you screw up an egg custard so badly?"

Fortunately for me, the dog loves thick, wet omelettes.

Not to be deterred, I unwedged the Betty Crocker Cookbook from behind the couch, which was resting on its side in front of the bookshelf.

The only recipe for egg custard in the index was a custard you make for some kind of alcoholic beverage. Ok. It required cooking but no baking.

I assembled the ingredients and cooked, stirring constantly. And kept stirring. And kept stirring, long past the 20 minutes it said it would take to coat the back of a spoon. The Daily Show came and went, as well as most of the brilliant Colbert Report. It thickened, somewhat. I figured it would finish in the fridge.


The next day Mr. Snackish proclaimed his outrage at my having screwed up the recipe again. He said it was still thin and watery.

"Did you bake it?" he asked. "You have to bake it!"

So I suggested baking the custard I had already made. "It's the same ingredients that the baked custard recipes call for," I reasoned.

He finished the dish by baking it for 40 minutes in a bain marie. He took the dish out, as proud as if he had made it all himself.

"Now THAT," he said, "Is egg custard."

I would give you the recipe but I am sure there are better and easier ways to make egg custard than my 2-day method.

Or maybe the two-day method is just a family secret. My mom has an infamous 2-day potato salad that she makes. Take ordinary potato salad and mix in about 10 phone calls and a medical emergency and there you have it - 2-day potato salad.

If you have any one-day egg custard recipes, will you let me know?