Le Dîner à San Francisco 2011

Imagine one of those rare, warm, still, clear evenings on the Music Concourse, between the De Young Museum and the Academy of Sciences,in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. With beautiful museums flanking, a centerpiece of fountains and dozens of beautifully sculpted trees providing cover, the sunken Concourse is beautiful in the warm, autumn night. Now imagine a thousand white-clad, champagne-swilling, food-obsessed Bay Area revelers waiving white napkins, toasting friends and munching on thousands of different picnic nibbles in the waining, pink dusky light. Cafe music ushers in the darkness of night and thousands of candles (mostly flameless) dapple the scene with romantic low light as flying paper lanterns rise up over the crowd into the night sky. People dance or take a stroll, illuminated by ambient light. Throughout the evening, corks pop, glasses clink and picnickers laugh and eat.

Spectacular!

Is this heaven? Ah, no. This is Le Diner a San Francisco, the City’s first effort at reproducing the famous Parisian Le Diner en Blanc. A sort of by-invitation-only flash mob, with a little costume party thrown in along with a good bit of decorative arts and fashion fetish to make it all fun, this is an event that will undoubtedly be harder to score entry to in the years to come. Dressed in white linen and cotton, the crowd enjoyed a remarkably comfortable night out of doors. The pop-up picnic organizers did a great job.

Bien manger et de bons amis!

We owe a debt of gratitude to Kris Corzine for inviting us to join her and friend Val, and for supplying much of the setup, including the flowers and table linens, a delicious Aperitif Ratafia plum liquor from the Perigord, foie de canard from the Dordogne (bought and brought from La Boutique de Badaud in Sarlat, France) and lentil salad a la KC. We supplied the crudité, anchovy-stuffed olives from Spain, charcuterie from Boccalone and a “tilted” four layer coconut rum cake. We all brought bottles of bubbly and still white wine to wash it all down.

A semi white array of crudite and more.

After three short hours of feasting, the party ends and everyone gathers up their stuff, leaving no trace and ghostly white parties slip into the dark of the park as they make their way home. It may not have been an evening picnic in heaven, but this year’s Le Diner a San Francisco was a smashing, heavenly success!

Coconut Rum Cake

Prepare the coconut rum pastry cream the night before. If you try to throw the whole thing together in a day, and you’re pressed for time, you’ll end up with a “tilted” cake, or worse. The cake and frosting recipes are from Martha Stewart (with minor adjustments) and the pastry cream is Jason’s, inspired by a combination of Martha’s and Ayse Dizioglu of Polka Dot Cake Studio in N.Y.C. via I like you, by Amy Sedaris (a must for entertaining).

“Tilting” Coconut Rum Cake

Layer Cake Recipe

3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature, plus more for pans
2 cups sifted cake flour, not self-rising, plus more for pans
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup superfine sugar
4 large egg yolks, lightly beaten
2/3 cup sour cream
1 teaspoon pure coconut extract
1 tablespoon dark rum
1 cup unsweetened coconut
Coconut cream filling
7 ounces (about 2 cups) sweetened angel-flake coconut
Seven Minute Frosting

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Arrange two racks in the center of the oven. Line the bottom of three 6-by-2-inch (or two 8-by-2-inch) buttered round cake pans with parchment paper. Dust the bottom and the sides of the cake pans with flour, and tap out any excess. Sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt, and set the bowl aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream butter on medium-low speed until fluffy, 1 to 2 minutes. Gradually add sugar, and keep beating until the mixture is fluffy and light in color, about 3 minutes. Gradually drizzle in egg yolks, beating on medium-low speed between each addition until the batter is no longer slick. Beat until the mixture is fluffy again, about another 3 minutes.

Alternate adding flour mixture and sour cream to the batter, a little of each at a time, starting and ending with the flour mixture. Beat in vanilla. Divide the batter between the prepared cake pans. Bake until a cake tester inserted into the center of each cake comes out clean, 30 to 40 minutes, rotating the pans in the oven, if needed, for even browning. Transfer cake pans to wire racks to cool, about 15 minutes. Remove cakes from pans, and let cool completely on racks, tops up.

In a small saute pan over medium heat add the unsweetened coconut and toast until lightly browned 4-5 minutes. Toss and stir the coconut to avoid burning.

To assemble, remove parchment paper from the bottoms of cakes. Split each layer in half horizontally with a serrated knife. Set aside the prettiest dome; it will be used for the final layer. Place another domed layer, dome side down, on the serving platter. Sprinkle 2 to 3 tablespoons of toasted coconut over the cake. Spread a generous 1/2 cup coconut-rum pastry cream over coconut flakes. Repeat sprinkling and spreading process on the remaining layers until all but the reserved domed layer are used. Top cake with the reserved domed layer. Transfer cake to the refrigerator to firm for 1 hour. Remove from the refrigerator, and frost the outside of cake with seven-minute frosting. Sprinkle remaining coconut flakes all over cake while frosting is soft; do not refrigerate. Cake can be left out at room temperature for several days.

Coconut Rum Pastry Cream

6 large egg yolks
3/4 cup sugar
6 tablespoons cornstarch
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cups milk
1 can full fat coconut milk
1 tsp coconut extract
1 tablespoon dark rum

Place egg yolks in a large bowl; whisk to combine; set bowl aside.

Combine sugar, cornstarch, and salt in a saucepan. Gradually whisk in milk. Cook, stirring, over medium heat until mixture thickens and comes to a boil, 10 to 12 minutes. Remove from heat.

Whisk 1/2 cup hot milk mixture into the reserved egg yolks to temper. Slowly pour warm yolks into the saucepan, stirring constantly. Cook slowly, stirring, over medium-low heat, until mixture begins to bubble, 5 to 6 minutes. Remove from heat. Stir in coconut extract and rum.

Transfer filling to a medium mixing bowl. Cover with plastic wrap, pressing the plastic against the pastry cream to prevent a film. Chill until firm, overnight, or at least 8 hours.

Seven Minute Frosting Recipe

3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
3 large egg whites, room temperature

In a small, heavy saucepan, combine 3/4 cup sugar, corn syrup, and 2 tablespoons water. Heat over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until sugar has dissolved. Rub a bit between your fingers to make sure there is no graininess. Raise heat to bring to a boil. Do not stir anymore. Boil, washing down sides of pan with a pastry brush dipped in cold water from time to time to prevent the sugar from crystallizing, until a candy thermometer registers 230 degrees about 5 minutes. (Depending on the humidity, this can take anywhere from 4 to 10 minutes.)

Meanwhile, in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whisk egg whites on medium speed until soft peaks form, about 2 1/2 minutes. Gradually add remaining 2 tablespoons sugar. Remove the syrup from the heat when the temperature reaches 230 degrees (it will keep rising as pan is removed from heat). Pour the syrup in a steady stream down the side of the bowl (to avoid splattering) containing the egg-white mixture, with the mixer on medium-low speed.

Beat frosting on medium speed until cool, 5 to 10 minutes. The frosting should be thick and shiny. Use immediately.

You say Macaron, I say Macaroon

If you haven’t visited Paris, you might assume that the pastry that best represents the city would be the croissant. After all, as Americans we associate the flaky pastry with the French even though it is technically a Viennese pastry. In our opinion, the pastry, or confection, that symbolizes Paris, and maybe even all of France, is the French macaroon. These beautiful cookies seem so sophisticated, yet are nothing more than colorful petite almond meringues filled with whatever the pastry chef can imagine; jams, caramel, pastry creams, whipped creams, are only a few of the things that can be smeared in between these light creations. If you’re a purist, you might add nothing at all.

Walking around the streets of Paris you’ll notice that many shops specialize in one thing and one thing only. The fromagerie will not sell baguettes, and the boulangerie will not sell cheese. And many patisseries throughout Paris specialize in macaroons and that is their near singular focus. Walking into one of these shops with rows and rows of colorful dots reminds Jason of a George Seurat’s masterpiece not yet painted. Imagine the size and scope of Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte created with tiny little macaroons in place of the dots of paint. Maybe George Seurat was influenced by these attractive, perfectly round, perfectly hued cookies. Born to a wealthy family and raised in Paris, he likely ate many of them. It’s fun to imagine his young eyes widening when he first sees the myriad color combinations created by the exotic palatte of the patisserie display case.

Laduree macaroons served at Harvey Nicks.

We first tasted a French style macaroon at Harvey Nichols. As fans of the BBC series Absolutely Fabulous, we had to lunch like Eddie and Patsy on our recent trip to London. Drinking wine and dining like the divas was one of the highlights of our trip. But, before stopping in for lunch at Harvey Nicks we toured the food halls of Harrods and visited the world famous Laduree teashop. When we saw the macaroons on the desert menu at Harvey Nicks we just had to finish our meal in style. Each of us indulged in a small, colorful piece of heaven. One bite of the cookie (there are only two bites per cookie) was all we needed to be hooked on the Parisian treat.

Once in Paris we located Laduree’s flagship store on the Champs-Elysees. After selecting their grande cookies over the petites, a pistachio and a chocolate, we walked to the Arc de Triumph and climbed the stairs to the observation deck to watch the Eiffel Tower light show while secretly eating our cookies (secretly because food and drink are forbidden on the observation deck). All things Parisian were rolled into one glorious experience. C’est la bon vie!

Upon returning to the states we’ve found a few little bakeries in San Francisco that make these beautiful little cookies. Jason made them once before, using almond paste, with modest success. Most of the recipes we have found call for almond meal or almond flour and in our opinion this approach seems to work better than almond paste. To truly get an authentic French macaroon you must grind the almond meal until very fine. Sending it through a fine sieve multiple times will get the best result. It is very time consuming and if you don’t have the right equipment it can take over your entire day, which means that sometimes you have to settle for the good over the perfect. You can still make a wonderful version of these cookies even if they are a little gritty from not getting the almond meal perfectly powdery. Think of them as country chic macaroons rather than the fussy, if perfect, Parisian variety.

The recipe Jason uses comes from Martha Stewart’s June 2010 magazine and features a recipe by a baker in Colorado. The recipe seems pretty close to the ones we’ve found on-line that claim to be the authentic Laduree recipe. The filling he uses is an apricot preserve from a local San Francisco company called Jam. Jam’s Blenheim apricot jam is perfect for a light peach color macaroon, but any flavor of store bought or home-made jam, custard, or caramel will work wonderfully with the cookie recipe.

So if you need a little taste of Paris don’t look for a croissant but instead try to find a little French macaroon. Of course, if you can’t find one in your local patisserie you can always make a small batch of them at home.

Bon Appetit!

French Macaroons with Apricot Filling
(from Martha Stewart’s website)

My only variation from Martha Stewart’s recipe is with the pulsing and sifting of the confectioner’s sugar and almond flour. It can be difficult and time consuming to do this. If your almond flour is too gritty, don’t worry too much, just pulse as much as possible and if it’s taking too much time to sift it, just do your best. Some sieves are extra fine and sometimes it can be almost impossible to pass the flour through. They’ll still turn out wonderfully no matter how fine your almond flour becomes.

Makes 35 macaroons

1 cup confectioners’ sugar
3/4 cup almond flour
2 large egg whites, room temperature
Pinch of cream of tartar
1/4 cup superfine sugar (if you don’t have superfine sugar, pulse some regular sugar in a food processor)
2 drops red and 4 drops yellow food coloring

3/4 cup apricot jam (or your favorite filling, see below for suggestions)

Pulse confectioners’ sugar and almond flour in a food processor until combined. Sift mixture 2 times. (See the note above about pulsing and sifting the almond flour and sugar.)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Whisk whites with a mixer on medium speed until foamy. Add cream of tartar, and whisk until soft peaks form. Reduce speed to low, then add superfine sugar. Increase speed to high, and whisk until stiff peaks form, about 8 minutes. Sift flour mixture over whites, and fold until mixture is smooth and shiny.

Transfer batter to a pastry bag fitted with a 1/2-inch plain round tip, and pipe 3/4-inch rounds 1 inch apart on parchment-lined baking sheets, dragging pastry tip to the side of rounds rather than forming peaks. Tap bottom of each sheet on work surface to release trapped air.

Let stand at room temperature for 15 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 325 degrees. Bake 1 sheet at a time, rotating halfway through, until macaroons are crisp and firm, about 10 minutes. After each batch, increase oven temperature to 375 degrees, heat for 5 minutes, then reduce to 325 degrees.

Let macaroons cool on sheets for 2 to 3 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack. (If macaroons stick, spray water underneath parchment on hot sheet. The steam will help release macaroons.)

Sandwich 2 same-size macaroons with 1 teaspoon jam. Serve immediately, or stack between layers of parchment, wrap in plastic, and freeze for up to 3 months.

MACAROON VARIATIONS
• Chocolate: Substitute 3 tablespoons unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder for 1/4 cup of the almond flour.
• Coconut: Substitute 2 tablespoons desiccated unsweetened coconut for 2 tablespoons of the almond flour, and add 1/2 teaspoon rum; sprinkle with additional coconut before baking.
• Peanut: Substitute an equal amount finely ground unsalted peanuts (peanut flour) for the almond flour.
• Pistachio: Substitute 1/2 cup finely ground unsalted pistachios (pistachio flour) for 1/2 cup of the almond flour, and add 2 to 3 drops forest-green gel-paste food coloring.
• Raspberry: Add 1 tablespoon fresh raspberry puree, strained, plus 3 to 4 drops dusty- rose gel-paste food coloring.
• Vanilla Bean: Add 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract or seeds from 1/2 vanilla bean, split and scraped, pod reserved for another use.

SUGGESTED FILLINGS FOR MACAROONS
• Chocolate: Chocolate Ganache
• Coconut: 1 cup Swiss Meringue Buttercream, mixed with 1/3 cup angel-flake coconut.
• Peanut: Chocolate Ganache, or store-bought dulce de leche, jam, or peanut butter.
• Pistachio: 1 cup Swiss Meringue Buttercream, mixed with 1/3 cup finely chopped pistachios.
• Raspberry: 3/4 cup seedless raspberry jam
• Vanilla Bean: 1 cup Pineapple Buttercream , 1 cup Swiss Meringue Buttercream, or 3/4 cup store-bought jam or preserves.