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The February 2010 Daring Bakers' challenge was hosted by Aparna of My Diverse Kitchen and Deeba of Passionate About Baking. They chose Tiramisu as the challenge for the month. Their challenge recipe is based on recipes from The Washington Post, Cordon Bleu at Home and Baking Obsession. You can find the complete recipes on either of their blogs.

I've never been that crazy about tiramisu. I don't dislike it, but it's just not on the top of my dessert list. That said, I thought it would be a lot of fun to make. And it was. But for me, the odd thing about making tiramisu was that almost every component was more delicious on its own than in the final product.

The creamy part of the tiramisu is a mixture of zabaglione, pastry cream, marscapone, and whipped cream. This is spread between layers of espresso-dipped ladyfingers. How could that combo go wrong, right?

Well, just listen to the wonderful contrasts between the components. My zabaglione was thick and custardy, with notes of rich rum and tart lemon. My pastry cream was supersweet, smooth, and just short of cloying with vanilla. The homemade marscapone was fresh, mild, heavenly. Whipped cream was... well, whipped cream. But mixed together, they were merely sweet, and very rich. Oh, the lemon was there, the rum and vanilla, but smooshed all together they became one round flavor, without the contrast of textures and flavors that I enjoyed tasting while I was cooking. Ladyfingers, fresh from the oven, were like fluffy sandcastles, but in the assembled tiramisu, they lost their delicate crunch and became merely a coffee-flavored interruption to the otherwise overwhelming sweet creaminess.

I still enjoyed the outcome, but if I do this again, I think it will definitely be tirimisu:deconstructed.

 

The December 2009 Daring Bakers' challenge was brought to you by Anna of Very Small Anna and Y of Lemonpi. They chose to challenge Daring Bakers' everywhere to bake and assemble a gingerbread house from scratch. They chose recipes from Good Housekeeping and from The Great Scandinavian Baking Book as the challenge recipes.

I, however, did not use any of those recipes. I did not use any recipes at all, in fact, as someone else did all the baking, while I simply sat on my tuckus drinking wine and waiting to swoop in for the fun part: the decorating.

See, I was planning on blowing off this challenge, as I had already spent most of the month making candy, and was frankly a little bit baked-out. But when two of my holiday hosts, April and Will, decided to take on the hard work, I was more than willing to do my part with the application of Necco roofing tiles and frosting stucco.

April's family gingerbread recipe makes a very thin and very sturdy gingerbread, perfect for construction, and melted-sugar glue creates a practically indestructible bond between the pieces. The freshly assembled house looked gorgeous on its own, but we were soon all drawn into brainstorming decorating ideas and rearranging bits of candy here and there, even running out to the pharmacy in the middle of Christmas Day to buy more Necco wafers so that the roof's colored stripes wouldn't be interrupted. We went with a classic half-timbered look, with plenty of gumdrop trim and tinted Rice Krispie treat greenery, and even a little garden out back. Unfortunately, I failed to take a photo of the house filled with candlelight, the stained-glass window illuminated from within, and the welcoming light spilling out the tiny door.

Bonus gingerbread house: here's the gingerbread pyramid that I helped my nephews and sister-in-law with over Thanksgiving. They won Most Creative at the local Ronald McDonald House charity gingerbread competition!

 

The November 2009 Daring Bakers Challenge was chosen and hosted by Lisa Michele of Parsley, Sage, Desserts and Line Drives. She chose the Italian Pastry, Cannolo (Cannoli is plural), using the cookbooks Lidia's Italian-American Kitchen by Lidia Matticchio Bastianich and The Sopranos Family Cookbook by Allen Rucker; recipes by Michelle Scicolone, as ingredient/direction guides. She added her own modifications/changes, so the recipe is not 100% verbatim from either book.

The first step is to make the ricotta for the filling. I've made traditional ricotta before, from the whey produced by hard cheese making, but, unfortunately, I didn't have time to make hard cheese this week — so instead, I made it the quick and dirty way. With just whole milk, cream, salt, and lemon juice, it is incredibly easy, and it makes a tender, rich cheese.

After simmering the salted milk and cream with lemon juice until it curdles, it is drained through cheesecloth for a couple hours, and then refrigerated overnight.

On Thanksgiving morning I made the cannolo dough, a rubbery mass made aromatic by the addition of dessert wine and cinnamon. It also needs to chill for a few hours, so it can relax enough to be rolled paper-thin.

The cannoli assembly was the Thanksgiving post-dinner entertainment, and it became a family project. My nephew and my husband helped me roll out the dough as thin as possible, and cut 3" circles using a coffee mug. I rolled the circles even thinner, and then wrapped them around these metal cannoli forms while my mom sealed them with egg whites. Finally I slid the dough-wrapped forms into the hot oil and turned them until they were bubbly and brown. The thinner the dough was rolled, the bubblier and crisper the resulting cannoli shells were. Thicker dough tended to warp and pull away from the form, and produce a soft, chewy shell.

You can see that some shells turned out a little prettier than others. This recipe made about twice as many cannoli as I expected &mdash these piles were still growing.

Meanwhile, my sister-in-law was beating the ricotta with powdered sugar, vanilla, and lemon and grapefruit zest. She folded in some whipped cream to lighten the filling, and then we piped it into the cannoli with a plastic bag.

I'm kind of a purist when it comes to cannoli: I don't like them dipped in chocolate, I don't like them studded with nuts or chocolate chips, and I don't like them flavored. This seemed to be especially relevant for these homemade cannoli, which had so much more character than bakery versions. These shells were so crispy and flavorful, with notes of spiced grapes and olive oil, and the fresh ricotta and citrus zest was so rich and tangy, it would be a shame to distract from them.

 

This month's Daring Cooks challenge is a vegan version of Indian dosas, presented by Debyi from Healthy Vegan Kitchen.

Ladies and gentlemen, this challenge was HARD. Now, I eat a fair amount of vegetarian food, and Indian veggie dishes are some of my favorites, but the line to vegan is one I rarely cross. I am a huuuge fan of dairy and animal fats, and since this is also a low-fat recipe, the urge to slip a little ghee or at least vegetable oil in somewhere was pretty strong. That's not actually what hindered me most in this challenge, however. The real problem was that I was without a non-stick skillet. Without a non-stick pan, I really couldn't get the dosas to cook correctly, though I tried all different heats and even ended up trying puddles of vegetable oil. What finally worked to produce a decent pancake was a medium-thin layer of oil and very low heat, with no flipping. But not before I produced a giant pile of crispy torn dosa corners.

My favorite part of this recipe was the tasty coconut curry sauce, which added some excellent spice and depth of flavor to the milder chickpea filling. And, while I am still no vegan (that's mozzarella I am slicing in the background here) I did learn that I really like almond milk, and I've been enjoying the leftover from this dish with my cereal in the mornings.

 

The August 2009 Daring Bakers' challenge was hosted by Angela of A Spoonful of Sugar and Lorraine of Not Quite Nigella. They chose the spectacular Dobos Torte based on a recipe from Rick Rodgers' cookbook Kaffeehaus: Exquisite Desserts from the Classic Caffés of Vienna, Budapest, and Prague. The Dobos Torte is composed of six layers of thin, delicate sponge cake, five of them encased in rich chocolate buttercream and the last drenched in lemony caramel and set jauntily atop the torte.

Once again, heat and humidity made this project a little trying, but it turned out much better than I expected given that all my sticks of butter turned molten mere seconds out of the fridge. You can probably tell that the buttercream was a little on the soft side, but the flavor was sublime. Meanwhile, the sponge cake layers puffed up like a dream, and the caramel was thin enough to spread but thick enough to crisp perfectly on cooling.

What most surprised me about this recipe was the amount of lemon juice in the caramel. It added quite a tang to the cake's flavor profile, and really kept it from being too cloying. I loved the combination of crunchy caramel and tender cake, at once insubstantial and sticky between the teeth, with flavors both mild and bold. Delicious!

More good news (although what could be better news than chocolate buttercream and caramel-coated spongecake, I don't know): it looks like things are going to be settling down around here in the next couple weeks. I'm even planning to start some serious kitchen projects this weekend, and I can't wait to blog about them. So hopefully The Brave Potato's long silent summer will be at an end very soon.

 

This month posting has been intentionally slow, but this post is unintentionally late — we had a prolonged internet outage, but service is back now, so I can tell you about this month's Daring Cooks Challenge. This month's host is Olga from Las Cosas de Olga (Spanish) and Olga's Recipes, and she chose a Spanish recipe, Rice with Mushrooms, Cuttlefish and Artichokes by José Andrés.

I made a few substitutions on this recipe: baby artichokes for regular, arborio rice for paella rice, and I didn't see any cuttlefish (although I admit I didn't look terribly hard), so I substituted a mix of squid and baby octopus. I also made a second batch with whole chicken thighs. I'd never made paella, or anything paella-like, before, and I was particularly impressed by how quickly the rice cooked up. Both the chicken and the seafood versions were delicious, although I found that I was adding much more sofregit that the recipe called for to boost the flavor — I actually think my sofregit was a little on the bland side because i didn't let it simmer long enough.

After we had some of each version of the dish for dinner with some salad and bread, I mixed the two together and have been eating the leftovers for lunch. Yum!

 

The July Daring Bakers' challenge was hosted by Nicole at Sweet Tooth. She chose Chocolate Covered Marshmallow Cookies and Milan Cookies from pastry chef Gale Gand of the Food Network.

If you were to ask me what my least favorite cookie was a month ago, it is quite likely I would say Milanos — I just don't care for them. Marshmallow cookies, on the other hand, I am quite fond of. So the outcome of this month's Daring Bakers challenge, which had us making both, was quite a surprise for me: the Milan Cookies were not only easier and more satisfying to make, but turned out to be incredibly delicious. The Chocolate Covered Marshmallow Cookies, on the other hand, were frustrating at every turn, and the results were still imperfect. (I am sure that the recipe is not at fault here, just me!)

My Milan cookies, which took just minutes to throw together, were softer and more flavorful than their store-bought brethren. The depth of citrus and dark chocolate and the delicate madeleine-like flavor of the cookies harmonized perfectly, while I find regular Milanos' flavor flat and sharp, and their texture dry.

Unfortunately, I can't say the same of the marshmallow cookies. I used very nice ingredients, so the results taste alright, but unfortunately, just about everything else about them went wrong. While I did eventually get some serviceable, if rather flat, marshmallow cookies made, I struggled at every turn. First, it seemed like the recipe made far too many cookie bases. Then my runny marshmallow had trouble staying on the cookies and firming up. I decided to temper my chocolate topping rather than add oil, and even though I've done that many times with no problems, on this project it took me two tries, and even then the chocolate coating was a little soft. I was so glad to be done with these cookies, I just chalked all my troubles up to the humidity and sat down with a beer and a plate of those delicious Milan cookies to recover from the stress!

 

This weekend I decided to take a trek out to the rooftop farm that everyone is talking about. (Yes, even though it's probably the most local my food could get without stealing from a neighbor's tomato patch, it's still all the way across Brooklyn, in Greenpoint, so it qualifies as a trek.) The farm runs a produce stand every Sunday, located in a dim little office on one of the upper levels of the warehouse building under the farm. The stand currently has a small selection of herbs, greens, peppers, and a lot of nasturtiums. The best part was definitely the chance to climb up and see the garden itself — surprisingly small, but packed to the gills with flourishing plants (and camera crews).

I picked up some chard, and together with some wild purslane from the Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket, I made a "rustic" pesto of sorts — without a food processor or blender, I simply minced the greens with olive oil and salt. It was nowhere near as pretty as a real pesto sauce, and it tended to stick to the bowl much better than the pasta, but it was full of fresh green flavors.

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