My husband commented that only I would find Dacquoise a comfort food.
While reading a blog recently a logo caught my eye, it promoted “Cook the Book.” Upon further investigation of Cook the Books Club
I found that the premise was for bloggers to read a prescribed book about food, food memories, with the theme of food and cooking. This particular book was Comfort Me with Apples: More Adventures at the Table by Ruth Reichl, noted author, former Gourmet Magazine Editor-in-Chief, novelist, the accolades are impressive. I’ve read many of her books and already read this one, but since I find them enjoyable, I decided to re-read and participate in the blog event. Re-reading the book reminded me of several things. I miss Gourmet Magazine. The newsstand version dropped off the shelves in 2009 just before the Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s seasons. It was the go-to guide for fine food, good living and excellent writing. So, reading Comfort Me with Apples though it’s a memoir of Reichl in her pre-Gourmet days, brings to mind Gourmet Magazine to me. My mother and her sister were devotees of the magazine, collecting the bound editions of the recipes and the cookbooks that were produced periodically. Trying new dishes or reading about places they would never visit, they would test the waters on our family. One particular recipe my mother liked to cook was Chicken Madras.
In the 60s and 70s, curries became popular. This particular recipe is enhanced by the addition of almonds steeped in heavy cream and pureed to thicken the sauce. It’s full of spice, the level of which begins with the heat of the curry you choose. There are complex flavors and textures to blend to form a delicious and flavorful chicken stew that has come to be one of my own family’s favorites. When I made it recently, my husband commented as our teens were slurping up the sauce, “it’s been a long time since your mother cooked like this for us.” I felt kind of sad as though I’d been neglecting them. I think ( I hope anyway) what he meant was that I was making a meal they wanted and enjoyed rather than something to write about or something sweet as a gift to someone else with disclaimers such as “touch this and you’ll be grounded for ten years.” I rarely make meals. That’s my husband’s job.
So when I read this book it brought the Chicken Madras recipe to mind. It’s an easy recipe to read, but it takes time and patience to prepare; to cut the chicken, to dice the vegetables, to toast the coconut. Don’t be dissuaded, its flavor will warm your heart. After reading over it, however, I realized that it needed a little updating. The recipe calls for ground ginger, I used fresh. It has heavy cream, I actually used Califia Farms almond milk and steeped coconut flakes in it. Another suggestion would be to use coconut milk. I also added the smallest pinch of red curry paste we had on hand. The recipe ends with “serve with traditional accompaniments.” Nowhere was an indication of what this tradition might be, I guess everyone that was in the know at the time would have been aware. In the glossy and now faded photo from the Gourmet Cookbook, Volume II that I inherited from my aunt was a hint: Coconut, chopped scallions, and maraschino cherries! That’s so 70s. My mother always served it with raisins, coconut and sliced bananas. I don’t remember the cherries being present.
This recipe, however, was not in Reichl’s memoir. Reichl uses food and memories to weave her story of becoming a food writer at the time this volume of Gourmet was being produced. She too grew up with a mother who loved to entertain and try her hand at different things. My mother, I’m pretty sure, was more successful. We never got food poisoning. Just saying.
A recipe that was in Reichl’s book was Dacquoise with Mocha Buttercream. Reichl ends a bittersweet chapter of her life with this recipe. It signifies a memory of hers of passions and emotions that cannot be bottled. My husband declared “only you would find Dacquoise comfort food.” This is comfort food. Food that brings back to you the nostalgia of something that you cannot relive, but you can taste. A taste that invokes a memory. Now being a classically trained pastry chef, I’ve made Dacquoise a few times, in a few different ways. I used to use a layer of dacquoise in my Homerun Chocolate Cake, chocolate cake layered with chocolate whipped cream mousse and layer of Dacquoise glazed with rich chocolate ganache. It was a hit. Dacquoise is simply a baked meringue beefed up with ground almonds and iced with a buttercream. It’s a sturdy layer and used in Reichl’s preparation as the actual cake layers. The thing that jumped out at me about the recipe was that the buttercream consisted of cooked custard. I’ve also made my fair share of buttercream in many fashions, but this one I had not yet tried. It did not disappoint. Rich and silky, like a buttercream should be, it starts as a dark custardy mess, and then becomes a glistening finishing touch to a simple dessert. I didn’t have enough almonds to decorate the sides as directed in the recipe but then again, I didn’t have the maraschino cherries for the curry either, this is called creative license.
Reading this book is like watching Back to the Future. You are following Reichl in her early years in San Francisco and Los Angeles and California cuisine is in its hatchling stages, yet everything is so familiar. She follows Wolfgang Puck from his hotel days to Spago then explosive opening of Chinois. She sidles up to Alice Waters in her uber famous Chez Panisse and in her own home kitchen, with all the familiarity of an old chum, yet today we think of Waters as the Goddess of California cuisine and ultimately the sustainable cuisine that is so popular today. Sustainable cuisine and living is the rage now and that’s what Waters was teaching and Reichl was living. She also brushes shoulders with Bruce Aidells the Sausage King and iconic restaurateur Michael McCarty among others. Reichl is not afraid to admit her insecurities or failings but that just makes this book all the more an enjoyable read. She laughs at herself. Her anecdotes of “Life with Mother” are laughable and unbelievable to the point that nobody could make this stuff up. This book was a delight to read the first and second time, just like eating a warm chicken curry stew or a rich, silky treat such as Dacquoise with Mocha Buttercream.
Dacquoise (from Comfort Me with Apples, pg. 49-51)
FOR THE ALMOND MERINGUE
1 ¼ cups whole blanched almonds, pulsed to fine in food processor (I used almond flour)
¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
6 large egg whites
¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
pinch of salt
FOR THE MOCHA BUTTERCREAM
1 cup granulated sugar
6 large egg yolks
½ cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons instant espresso
¼ teaspoon salt
2 sticks ( 1 cup) unsalted butter, softened
Garnish: ¼ cup sliced toasted almonds and confectioners’ sugar for dusting
TO MAKE THE MERINGUE
Preheat the oven to 275°F. Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper and on each draw a 10-inch circle, using the bottom of a 10-inch springform pan as a guide. Flip the paper over (the circle will show through).
Pulse the nuts in a food processor with 2 tablespoons of the granulated sugar until ground fine. Add the cornstarch and pulse until combined. Beat the egg whites with the cream of tartar and a pinch of salt in a standing electric mixer on high speed until soft peaks form. Gradually beat in the remaining ¾ cup of sugar on low speed, and then beat on high speed until it forms stiff, glossy peaks. Fold in the almond mixture gently but thoroughly.
Divide the meringue mixture between the two parchment circles, spreading to fill in the circles evenly. Bake the meringues in the upper and lower thirds of the oven, switching the position of the baking sheets halfway through baking, until firm and pale golden, ab out 1 hour. Slide the parchment paper with the meringues from the sheets and place on racks to cool.
TO MAKE THE BUTTERCREAM
Bet the egg yolks with ½ cup sugar in a standing electric mixer on high speed until thick and pale, about 4 minutes. While the yolks are beating, whisk the heavy cream with the remaining ½ cup sugar in a small saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring, until sugar is dissolved. Gradually whisk half of the hot cream into the yolk mixture to temper the eggs; the whisk the yolk mixture into the remaining hot cream, along with the instant espresso powder and salt.
Cook the custard over moderate heat, stirring constantly, until an instant-read thermometer registers 170°F. Transfer the mixture to the clean bowl of the standing electric mixer and beat until cooled completely. Beat in butter 1 tablespoon at a time and chill, covered, for at least 30 minutes.
TO ASSEMBLE THE DACQUOISE
Carefully remove the meringues form the parchments and spread one meringue (smooth side down) evenly with the buttercream. Top the buttercream with the remaining meringue (smooth side up) and decorate the outside edges of the buttercream with toasted almonds. Chill the dacquoise, loosely covered, until firm, at least 2 hours; before serving, dust the top with confectioners’ sugar.
Amy Stafford Malik ©2015