dulce de leche KC

I brace myself as I present the caramel.  A jar of homemade Dulce de Leche to my dear friend, Ms Contreras.  I apprehensively push the jar across the table towards her.  She eyes it eagerly.  My nerves grow as I fear disappointment.  I do not want this to be the second worst day of her life!

She promptly opens the jar, and, with spoon clutched in hand, lingers momentarily.  I almost slap both hands over my face in anticipation.  I fretfully watch as she scoops up a dollop of the Dulce de Leche, and quickly tastes.

And then it happened.  Immediately.  With just one spoonful.

Ms Contreras was instantly transported back to Chile.

To the lush and green surroundings of her childhood town of Talca.  The tree lined streets. The rolling hills.  To the four-hour train journey between Talca and Santiago she regularly took to visit family.  To the joy of the train stopping during the trip in the town Curicó.  To watching hundreds of charming old ladies dressed in white, selling Tortas de Curicó (pastry and caramel treat), to passengers on the train.

To the hustle and bustle of Santiago.  To the memory of standing at one of her favourite spots, the Plaza de Armas, surrounded by trees, statues and fountains.  To the imposing and majestic Andes looming in the background.  To the sound of Salsa and Cumbia from performers nearby.  To the memory of onlookers slowly moving their hips to the beat of this seductive Latin rhythm.

To the cheerful and sunny seaside retreat of Valparaiso.  To the colourful scenery of pastel buildings clinging to the steep hills.  To the charming art and antique markets full to the brim with treasures.  To happy chatter of families holidaying echoing in the distance.

To her grandmother’s kitchen.  To the memories of her lovingly making Torta de manjar (sponge cake filled with caramel and liquor and covered in caramel and nuts) and Pastel mil ojas (thin layers of pastry with rich caramel filling) for the family.  To recollections of helping her grandmother in the kitchen, watching, learning – and licking her mixing bowls and spoons after she was finished!

To the memory of so many special moments.

To the realisation that caramel takes her back there….

Then Ms Contreras is back, with me.

Back at Piaf, South Bank in Brisbane.  Fashioning a smile on her face that you could not mistake.  Seeing that smile I am reminded of why I bake – and my priceless reward.  What a privilege for me to share these special memories.

Dulce de Leche

Dulce de Leche is very similar to Confiture du Lait (milk jam).  I experimented making this caramel sauce based on these two variations.  P.S. There is no dangerous boiling of cans involved!

{ Dulce de Leche }

* Ingredients *
2 cans of sweetened condensed milk

* Directions *
Empty the condensed milk into an ovenproof bowl.  Generously cover with foil.  Put the bowl into a baking dish, and in a similar way to baking cheesecake, fill the tin up with hot water so it covers the condensed milk.  Bake for 1 ¼ hours at 200C or 400F.  Check the oven every 20-30 minutes to ensure the water levels do not drop.  The condensed milk should have turned a golden, brown colour when it is ready.  Remove from the oven and allow to cool.

{ Confiture du Lait }

* Ingredients *
600ml or 1 pint whole milk
250g or 1 1/3 cups sugar
Vanilla, optional

* Directions *
Add the milk and sugar to a heavy saucepan.  Add the vanilla, if using.  Bring to the boil stirring the mixture constantly.  Turn the heat down to a very low simmer, and cook for 2 ½ to 3 hours.  The caramel is ready when you have reached a golden, brown colour and thick consistency.  Remove from the stove and allow to cool.

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Lavender Honey Creme Caramel 

I almost could not endure the anticipation.  Clutching a roadmap, I eagerly keep track of our journey.  Reaching the last turn, I see the tourist sign and (glad I have successfully navigated the way), start to cheer silently in eagerness for the approaching lavender.  Rows upon rows of fragrant lavender at The Bridestowe Estate Lavender Farm – one of the largest commercial lavender farms in the world.

Mr Mélanger and I were aware it was too early for the full blooms, but hoping at least for some dramatic visual of the great expanse of lavender on offer at the farm.  Slowly driving in, you could see the disappointment on my face immediately.  The lavender certainly was not in full bloom, and from a distance, you could not see any flowers at all. 

I look around, admiring the vastness of the lavender that had been planted in this glorious farm.  I pause and squint hoping to squeeze a little more colour into focus.  It was not to be.  Slightly disenchanted, I decide to soak up my sadness by marching straight into the gift store and seek some type of compensation by purchasing an array of lavender based products.  (You certainly cannot have enough.)

Back in Brisbane, I am inspired by our two-week honeymoon in Tasmania and look to combine the unique floral flavour of lavender into caramel month.  I have baked with lavender earlier in the year when I created my lavender macarons.

I wanted to pair the lavender this time with a complementary flavour.  After only a little thinking, I quickly decided that flavour to be honey.  But not any honey.  Tasmanian Leatherwood Honey.  This honey is exclusively native to the world heritage area of Tasmanian West coast wilderness.  It has a distinctive spicy flavour. 

So it was decided.  Lavender + Honey.  And the vessel for this combination?  Crème caramel.

I have been meaning to bake crème caramel beyond the standard (but still delicious) variety.  I could also picture me and Mr Mélanger tucking into one of these sweet and creamy desserts in a cosy little bistro overlooking some of the most spectacular landscapes that Tasmania offers.

Crème caramel is not a difficult dessert to make.  Caramel is cooked and poured into ramekins, and then a simple custard is added.  Chilled and then served, it guarantees a moment of anticipation as you invert the dessert onto a plate – hoping it easily releases from the mould – and then when it does, a smile as you watch the caramel eagerly run down the custard to the plate.

If you are comfortable with making caramel and custard the only area to really watch is the baking time.  You want the end product to jiggle a little.  Baked too long, and you risk scrambled eggs.  Delicious for breakfast, but not for dessert.

I experimented with both of these flavours carefully.  I did not want to overpower the delicate crème caramel.  I must say, the sweet floral of the lavender was a quite a match for the spicy, sweet honey.  I am now scheming in my head all the other flavour combinations I want to try!

Bees

{ Images } Busy Tasmanian Bee

Lavender

{ Images } Rows of fragrant lavender at The Bridestowe Estate Lavender Farm

{ Lavender Honey Crème Caramel }

* Ingredients *
1 cup (250ml) milk
1 cup (250ml) heavy cream
1 teaspoon lavender
3 egg yolks
3 eggs
1 tablespoon leatherwood honey
¼ cup sugar

Caramel
½ cup sugar
1 tablespoon water

* Directions *
Grease 4 moulds / ramekins.  Place into a roasting tin, and keep close to hand.  For the caramel, put the sugar and water into a saucepan over a medium heat.  Cook until the sugar has melted and reached a golden caramel colour.  Immediately pour or spoon the caramel into the prepared moulds.  You must do this quickly as the caramel soon starts to harden.  Set the moulds aside.  Preheat the oven to 160C or 320F.  For the custard, bring the milk and cream to a boil.  In a separate bowl, lightly beat the egg yolks and eggs with the sugar and honey.  Pour the boiled milk and cream over the eggs slowly, stirring well.  Pass through a very fine sieve, or double sieve if you prefer (particularly to ensure you remove ingredients such as lavender buds).  Pour the custard into the moulds.  Fill the roasting tin about half way with hot water.  Bake for 25-30 minutes until the centre jiggles slightly.  Cool to room temperature then refrigerate for 4 hours or overnight.  To serve, run a knife around the edge of the custard, and carefully invert the mould on to a plate.

Serves 4

{ Notes } For a standard crème caramel :: replace the lavender with vanilla, and omit the honey increasing the sugar from ¼ cup to 1/3 cup.

Caramel month

This month (with a 3-1 vote by Mélanger readers!), I will be tackling caramel and exploring what mouth-watering treats I can create with various proportions of sugar and water – plus butter and cream! 

Creamy or crunchy.  Hard or soft.  Caramel is a gem in the baking arsenal.  Often a well placed decoration in a desert or the all-round star of the show.  Either way, its versatility is undeniable.

Caramel is loved the world over.  But I think I personally know caramel’s #1 fan.  It comes in the always effervescent package known as Ms Contreras.

At 15, Ms Contreras moved from Chile with her family to Australia.  She spoke no English.  Quickly, she found herself caught up in the routine of her new life.  One such event was a trip to the local supermarket.

Ms Contreras thought all her Christmases had come at once when she spied an over-sized jar of caramel.  This jar spoke no Spanish, but she just knew it was talking to her.  Compelling her to buy it.  Needless to say, there was little resistance from Ms Contreras.

Once home, she quickly whipped the lid off the container, and with spoon ready, Ms Contreras dipped in without hesitation.  As soon as the spoon reached her mouth, alarm bells went off.  She may not have been able to read English at this stage, but her taste buds could immediately translate.

What she so longingly wanted to taste, was not her beloved caramel at all.  Her secret food desire.  But in fact, what she tasted was peanut butter.  Plain, old peanut butter.

With her little 15 year old shoulders slumped, and her spirit broken, she declared – and still does to this day – that to be the worst day of her life.

The treats I make during :: Caramel Month :: will never ever make up for that day, but hopefully one or two (that I, of course, will share!) will put a smile on her face.

caramel-cheesecake11

The April 2009 challenge is hosted by Jenny from Jenny Bakes. She has chosen Abbey’s Infamous Cheesecake as the challenge.

I hate to admit, but I am not a fan of cheesecake.  I love cake.  I love cheese.  I love cream cheese (particularly on bagels!), but not a fan of cheesecake.  (I am also not a fan of ice-cream cake though I love ice cream and I love cake.  Go figure…)

My sister’s husband, on the other hand, is a big fan of cheesecake.  So cheesecake has featured a couple of times as my selection of birthday cake for him in the past.  My first attempt though was disastrous.  I found a seemingly simple baked cheesecake recipe and managed to make a mess of it. I prepared and baked it per instruction, but was left with a massive crack or two along the top.  I fondly termed it the San Andreas Cheesecake to play up the error.

After the failure, I obviously needed to do some troubleshooting.  I identified the problem.  No water bath.  So when another birthday for my brother in law rolled around, I gave the cheesecake another whirl.  This time, I am pleased to announce success.

So for this month’s Daring Baker’s challenge, I was quietly confident I could produce a ‘crack free’ cake.  The only question was how creative could be.  After considering a few outrageous flavour combinations, I settled on a simple caramel cheesecake.  I always seem to opt for simple.

Why caramel?  Mostly because I have never filled a cheesecake before and wanted to trial that outcome.  Also, because my lovely Chilean friend K. is always thinking about caramel so the flavour was top of mind.

As challenges go, this for me was pretty simple having made cheesecake before.  I was secretly grateful given some of the more time intensive baked goods I have been tackling this month (sourdough, bagels, brioche and croissants).

If you love cheesecake, this is a perfect recipe.  Proof?  After taking photos for this post, the cake was practically inhaled.  Major contributors include my partner (another cheesecake lover), my brother-in-law (of course), and my little Easter helpers, my nieces.  Every time I turned around another chunk had disappeared.  So proof enough for me!

Here is the basic recipe.

{ Abbey’s Infamous Cheesecake }

* Ingredients *

crust:
2 cups / 180 g graham cracker crumbs
1 stick / 4 oz butter, melted
2 tbsp. / 24 g sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract
cheesecake:
3 sticks of cream cheese, 8 oz each (total of 24 oz) room temperature
1 cup / 210 g sugar
3 large eggs
1 cup / 8 oz heavy cream
1 tbsp. lemon juice
1 tbsp. vanilla extract (or the innards of a vanilla bean)
1 tbsp liqueur, optional, but choose what will work well with your cheesecake

* Directions *

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (Gas Mark 4 = 180C = Moderate heat). Begin to boil a large pot of water for the water bath.
2. Mix together the crust ingredients and press into your preferred pan. You can press the crust just into the bottom, or up the sides of the pan too – baker’s choice. Set crust aside.
3. Combine cream cheese and sugar in the bowl of a stand-mixer (or in a large bowl if using a hand-mixer) and cream together until smooth. Add eggs, one at a time, fully incorporating each before adding the next. Make sure to scrape down the bowl in between each egg. Add heavy cream, vanilla, lemon juice, and alcohol and blend until smooth and creamy.
4. Pour batter into prepared crust and tap the pan on the counter a few times to bring all air bubbles to the surface. Place pan into a larger pan and pour boiling water into the larger pan until halfway up the side of the cheesecake pan. If cheesecake pan is not airtight, cover bottom securely with foil before adding water.
5. Bake 45 to 55 minutes, until it is almost done – this can be hard to judge, but you’re looking for the cake to hold together, but still have a lot of jiggle to it in the center. You don’t want it to be completely firm at this stage. Close the oven door, turn the heat off, and let rest in the cooling oven for one hour. This lets the cake finish cooking and cool down gently enough so that it won’t crack on the top. After one hour, remove cheesecake from oven and lift carefully out of water bath. Let it finish cooling on the counter, and then cover and put in the fridge to chill. Once fully chilled, it is ready to serve.
Pan note: The creator of this recipe used to use a springform pan, but no matter how well she wrapped the thing in tin foil, water would always seep in and make the crust soggy. Now she uses one of those 1-use foil “casserole” shaped pans from the grocery store. They’re 8 or 9 inches wide and really deep, and best of all, water-tight. When it comes time to serve, just cut the foil away.
Prep notes: While the actual making of this cheesecake is a minimal time commitment, it does need to bake for almost an hour, cool in the oven for an hour, and chill overnight before it is served. Please plan accordingly.

caramel-macarons1March 20 is Macaron Day (or Jour du Macaron) in France.  I love macarons and adore the idea of having a celebratory day in honour of these elusive little treats (and doubly a great idea as it is a charitable cause!). 

I am thinking about my obsession to conquer these sweet delights, and have been tempted to turn Jour du Macaron into my own personal month long festival.  (Though seriously, I need quite more than a month for all the experimenting I need to do…)

I think I have researched all I can on macarons;  I have attended classes, conferred with patisserie professionals, viewed behind the scenes macaron secretsin Paris, delved into blogs and references sites around the world, and poured over instructional texts on the subject.  Time for researching is over.  It is now time for serious doing – and my own little macaron month will be perfect for that.

I have attempted to synthesise all my research – and taking some recent inspiration from my all-day macaron extravaganza class – hope to successfully attempt a range of different macaron techniques and recipes this month.

For a sneak peek, I share with you a unique presentation of a caramel macaron from Savour Chocolate and Patisserie school in Melbourne, where I recently attended a macaron class. I made sure I returned to Brisbane with a sample of this macaron for my Latin American friend, K – she is obsessed with caramel!

Fittingly, this macaron was made using the Spanish method. An impressive airbrushing technique transformed this plain almond shell and caramel filling into un dramático caramel macaron .. muchas gracias

At Savour Chocolate and Patisserie school, we made six different macarons using a range of techniques (French, Spanish, Italian). 

::  Chocolate macarons with mint ganache filling
::  Raspberry macarons with raspberry confiture filling
::  Fidel Castro (chilli) macarons with a tequila ganache filling
::  Citrus macarons with citrus filling
::  Chocolate coriander macarons with coriander milk chocolate ganache
::  Caramel macaron with caramel cream filling

I was heartened by the fact not every batch was perfect.  Even with a highly trained professional involved in coaching and monitoring the whole process, it was easy to end up with a tray (or two!) of macawrongs!

To recreate the caramel macaron at home, you may have to pass on the airbrushing.  Perhaps a slightly less dramatic visual presentation, but hopefully not a reduction in taste.

{ Caramel macaron } adapted from Savour Chocolate and Patisserie school

caramel-macarons2* Ingredients *

500g tant pour tant (equal measure of icing sugar and almond meal)
50g icing sugar
200g caster sugar
200g egg whites
1 vanilla bean

* Directions *

Sift TPT with the icing sugar.  Whisk egg whites and caster sugar in three batches.  Add the scraped vanilla bean.  Continue mixing until stiff peaks stage.  Slowly incorporate dry ingredients into the meringue.  Bake at 165C for approximately 10 minutes.  When cool, sandwich two shells together with caramel cream.

{ Caramel cream }

* Ingredients *

300g caster sugar
180g cream
225g butter

* Directions *

Bring sugar to a dark colour.  Add boiling cream and cover when cool.  Add slowly to whipped butter.