Eat Local: Alexander’s Patisserie in Mountain View

March 9, 2015 § Leave a comment

Happy Monday! The sun is shining, the trees are blooming, and it’s Birthday Week — aka, Week of Indulgence. alexanders-tarts

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines indulgence as “the behavior or attitude of people who allow themselves to do what they want or who allow other people to do what they want.” That pretty much sums up how I’m approaching Birthday Week  (oh yeah, we’ve moved beyond “birthday” and “birthday weekend” to full-on Birthday Week).

Now, that doesn’t mean that I’m having cake and champagne for breakfast every day. But I am giving myself permission to enjoy whatever strikes, whether that’s taking an extra swipe at the snooze button in the AM or savoring a pre-dinner glass of wine on my porch while the sun sets. And when it comes to food and drink, I’m keeping my indulgences local — whether homemade with local ingredients or revisiting some of my favorite spots on the Peninsula.

Yesterday’s indulgence was homemade on-the-fly Crab and Sweet Potato soup that I threw together using a rich crab stock I’d made and frozen in January. With our crab season on the wane, it seem liked a good idea to enjoy one of my favorite foods while I could. (Sorry, no food porn for that one, but take my word for it, the soup turned out really well: stew-like and so flavorful.) Indulgence doesn’t have to be about big, sweet, fatty, or boozy. It can be any or all of those things, but sometimes a healthful homemade meal can be an indulgence — especially if you’re constantly on the go and skimping on homemade goodness.

Today’s indulgence, however, is all about sweet. This morning I had my heart set on cannelés from Alexander’s Patisserie in Mountain View. These wonderful little French pastries — also known as canelés and cannelés de Bordeaux — have a thick, crunchy, sweet (caramelized) exterior and a soft, custard-like center. They’re small and not too filling or sweet, which makes them perfect for breakfast or afternoon caffeine break. The ingredient list for cannelés is simple — similar to that for any cake — but the skill is in the technique. And Alexander’s is the only place I know of on the Peninsula that makes them. At first, cannelés don’t look like much — they’re about an inch high and the shape of a skinny, fluted mold with dark, caramelized exterior.

Don't be fooled by the plain exterior, there's creamy-textured, baked-custardy goodness inside!

Don’t be fooled by the plain exterior, there’s creamy-textured, baked-custardy goodness inside!

But, ooooh, when you bite into a cannelé, be prepared for a soft, luscious, custardy interior.

Once you get through the thick, carmelized crust, there's a soft center

Once you get through the thick, carmelized crust, there’s a soft center

If you have the willpower to eat just one canelé, then you’ll have room to try some of the other classic French pastries Alexander’s produces. Two to try: the kouign-amann and the hazelnut roll.

The kouign-amann was a lovely surprise! It has the rich, buttery, “breadiness” of a croissant, but the light layers of a sweet puff pastry. The skill here is making sure that the layers are light and flaky, not gummy and dense, and Alexander’s pulls it off.

Kouign-amman: When you just can't get enough flaky, buttery layers

Kouign-amman: When you just can’t get enough flaky, buttery layers

The hazelnut roll is a yeasted pastry: danish dough filled with cinnamon, sugar, and candied hazelnuts. It’s what’s also known as a “snail” pastry (or “escargot,” in French) because the dough is rolled around itself, in a shape much like a snail shell. The hazelnut roll is finished with a pretty powdered-sugar fleur de lis.

Inside the deceptively plain danish is layer after layer of sweet cinnamon and candied hazelnuts

Inside the deceptively plain danish is layer after layer of sweet cinnamon and candied hazelnuts

If it’s chocolate you MUST have, then try one of Alexander’s petits gateaux. L’Orange is a dome-shaped dessert with a candied orange slice on top and crispy dark-chocolate pearls around the base. Inside the dark-chocolate-glazed dome is a flourless chocolate cake layer topped with Grand Marnier ganache.

Classic combo: dark chocolate and orange

Classic combo: dark chocolate and orange

I loved the Chocolate Pillow, a small but decadent chocolate experience. Inside the 85% cacao chocolate glaze is a layer of chocolate mousse, a thin layer of chocolate cake, another layer of chocolate mousse, and a crispy hazelnut praline feuilletine layer. The “pillow” sits on a grown-up chocolate rice crispy layer. Definitely a birthday-worthy indulgence!

Chocolate Pillow: Crispy, soft, rich, and chocolatey

Chocolate Pillow: Decadent chocolate indulgence

An elegant, ambitious shop, Alexander’s Patisserie is part of the Alexander’s Group of dining establishments that includes The Sea in Palo Alto and the Michelin-starred Alexander’s Steakhouse in Cupertino. If you’re looking for well-made, French-style baked goods and confections in an elegant setting, this is it! All items are available to eat in or take away. The shop also serves coffee drinks, loose-leaf teas, and hot chocolate (again, to enjoy at one of the cafe’s marble tables or take to go).

What: Alexander’s Patisserie
Where: 209 Castro Street, Mountain View, CA 94041
Phone: 650-864-9999
Hours: Mon–Fri 6am–10pm; Sat 8am–10pm; Sun 8am–8pm
Parking: Street or lot

Have you discovered Alexander’s Patisserie? Share your experience in the comments below.last-bite

User Testing Gluten-Free Peanut Crunch Brownies

February 28, 2015 § 3 Comments

I love cookbooks. Some people collect animal figures, vinyl records, or jewelry. Not me. Nope, I collect cookbooks. Not intentionally. I mean, it didn’t start out that way, but after 30 years of acquiring cookbooks, I think it’s fair to say that I have a collection. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved the possibility that exists within cookbooks: a pretty cake that might taste even better than it looks, the slow-cooked scrambled eggs that I’ll linger over on a Saturday morning, or the yeasted waffles for Sunday night breakfast-for-dinner dinner.

Some old favorites and new additions

Some old favorites and new additions

When I was about seven years old, I discovered the cookbook section in my local library, and I’ve been hooked ever since. Poring over each colorful baking book was not only about what I might make, but also what I might learn. Without Food Network and the interwebs to rely on for visuals (it was the olden days), cooking was a trial-and-error experience.  More often than not, it was error, but cooking is something that you learn by doing — and often screwing up — not just by reading about it.

I know people who are fearless cooks — those who will dive right in and try a new recipe on the first read-through or just throw ingredients together without any attachment to the outcome. I’ve never been that kind of cook; I like the guidance of a cookbook, the framework of a recipe. I’m a researcher and a preparer, which is why the sweet kitchen has always been my thing (plus, you know, all those kitchen toys tools rock).

My cookbook collection can be divided into three categories. First, there are the kitchen “bibles,” if you will: the go-to’s, the must-haves. These are the books I’ll recommend or give as gifts because I know the recipes just work, such as Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Cake Bible or Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything. Then there are the specialty books, usually purchased for a project idea or a skill I want to learn, like canning. (Uh, still working on that. Canning cookbooks purchases to date: 3. Actual jars of jam made: 0). The last group is what I’d call personal connection, whether it’s the cookbook of a restaurant I’ve admired or enjoyed (Boulevard) or a chef who’s inspired me (Emily Luchetti!), these books are reminders of certain points in my life or milestones in my cooking experience.

Before I started culinary school at the CIA, I took a chocolate class at Ramekins in Sonoma, taught by Alice Medrich, Bay Area chocolate guru and James Beard award-winning cookbook author. (And oh hey, did you know that Alice Medrich has a 650 connection? Her Cocolat chain of shops in operation during the 1980’s included an outlet at Stanford Shopping Center.) She’s written 11 sweet cookbooks, many of which focus on chocolate (of course). Her most recent project, Flavor Flours, explores baking with gluten-free flours, such as rice, sorghum, and teff. After hearing her talk about the book at a JCC panel event that also included Beranbaum and Luchetti, it was a must-buy.

I’m not linear when it comes to cookbooks. Some people can cook right through from first page to last, but I like to skip around and make the things that look most interesting first. So, I’d been waiting for an excuse to make Medrich’s Peanut Crunch Brownies — which is basically a fudgy brownie on top of a peanut butter cookie. Yeah, you read that right. Then came National Chocolate-Covered Peanut Day this week. Chocolate brownie covering peanut cookie? Works for me.

Interpreting "chocolate-covered peanut"

Peanut Crunch Brownies

Well, it did, but honestly, not without a bit trepidation and a second run-through. Yes, even after years of baking, working with new ingredients and techniques meant that I was a little uncertain about the outcome. Would the baking times be accurate? Did I really have to bake these brownies in the upper-third of the oven? (still not sure) Could I use a smaller baking pan than the recipe called for? (Answer: yes, but there’s math involved. I don’t recommend it for first-timers.)

What advice would I give kitchen novices or those who have a bit of cooking fear when it comes to trying new recipes?

Read the recipe twice. I usually read through once to get a feel for the recipe, and a second time for details and techniques. Turns out that this recipe was really two recipes — a peanut butter cookie/crust recipe and a brownie recipe — that come together at the end.

Because the recipe has two parts, I set up the mise en place for each part separately. Shown: the brownie batter mise.

Because the recipe has two parts, I set up the mise en place for each part separately. Shown: the brownie batter mise.

Make sure you have all ingredients. One of the ingredients is crunchy, salted, natural peanut butter. I had two jars of peanut butter: both of them creamy, unsalted. *sigh* Did I really want to make a run to the market for a jar of peanut butter, of which I would use 160 grams and leave the rest in the back of my refrigerator for eternity? No. But I did have roasted peanuts, salt, and a food processor — and that was enough to make my own natural, crunchy, salted peanut butter.

Mise en place for the peanut cookie/crust layer: note the homemade peanut butter

Mise en place for the peanut cookie/crust layer: note the homemade peanut butter

Mise en place. Can’t say this enough times: weigh or measure all of your ingredients and revisit the ingredient list to check them off before starting to cook. You’d hate to find out that you forgot to add the sugar as you’re sliding those brownies into the oven. Pro tip: get organized by corralling all of your ingredients on a sheet pan.

Skip the substitutions. When it comes to baking, don’t make any substitutions the first time you make a new recipe, unless you’re really confident. Substitutions can affect weight, moisture, and in some cases, specific chemical reactions are required for a good end product.

Gluten-free brownie batter: no substitutions

Gluten-free brownie batter: no substitutions

Use baking times as guidelines. Any cookbook author will tell you that there’s no way to test every recipe in every oven. Baking times are usually accurate to within a couple of minutes, but not always. The first time you make a recipe, test it at the low end of the time range first, then give it more time if necessary. The peanut crunch layer, which bakes first, needed some extra time in my oven, as did the brownie layer.

Peanut crunch layer, pressed into the pan: Needed extra baking time in my oven

Peanut crunch layer, pressed into the pan: Needed extra baking time in my oven

Use an oven thermometer when baking. If your oven temperature is off, your baking times will be off. Knowing whether your oven temperature is accurate means adjust time and temperature as necessary for a better outcome.

Make notes. Afterwards, make notes either directly on the recipe or on a post-it note attached to the recipe about what worked, what didn’t, cooking times, and changes you’d like to try next time. For this recipe I would distribute the brownie batter more evenly for easier spreading. It’s a bit stiff and working it too much will pull up the peanut crunch layer. I’d also make sure that the peanut crunch layer isn’t too thick in the middle, pressing it up the sides of the pan more for even baking.

My notes:

First go-round: Already making notes for next time!

Give it a second try. Unless there’s something tragically wrong with a recipe (yes, there are bad and untested recipes out in the world), or you really can’t stomach the result, give a recipe a second go. I did make a second batch of these brownies because my first version was sadly underbaked, despite letting both the peanut crunch layer and brownies bake an extra few minutes beyond the recipe’s instructions. The second time around I pressed out the peanut layer so that it was thinner and baked it until golden brown, which made for a firmer base and a better texture. Muuuch better.

brownie-final-2Usually I have to make a recipe three times before I have all of the notes down and add it to my repertoire. How do you approach trying new recipes? Are you a fearless cook who jumps right in or are you a methodical note-taker? Share your experiences in the comments below.

Have You Had Your Macaron Today?

March 20, 2014 § 1 Comment

A decade ago, you’d be hard-pressed to find macarons in the Bay Area, let alone in the 650. If you mentioned macarons to most people, they’d think you meant a macaroon — the coconut cookie popular at Passover — or that you were trying to be fancy when what you should have said was “French macaroon.”

Dispay case of macarons at Chantal Guillon in Palo Alto

Macarons on Display at Chantal Guillon in Palo Alto

Fortunately, in the past couple of years, this luscious treat with a crispy outside and soft, almost-bonbon-like inside has found its way out of San Francisco and down the Peninsula. Once available only in a few shops in the city or as a mignardise in fine-dining restaurants, macarons have (finally!) gone mainstream. You can find them in bakeries along the Peninsula, from Pamplemousse in Redwood City to Whole Foods in Los Altos. Macarons have even earned their own food holiday: yes, today is Macaron Day!

Macarons are the marriage — or perhaps, more appropriately, menage à trois — of two almond-meringue “cookies” and buttercream, ganache, caramel, or jam filling. I’m reluctant to use the word “cookie” here, because les macarons are nothing like cookies to me. They’re more like a small dessert that layers both flavors and textures: a crispy exterior that cracks as you bite it, exposes a soft almond meringue, leading you into a creamy or jammy filling, and then back through the meringue soft/crispy combination again. And all of this is achieved in a two-bite (three, if you’re dainty) experience.

Flavor combinations, when executed well, incorporate both sweet and bitter or savory. For example, Chantal Guillon’s Strawberry Balsamic macaron brings together the flavor of almond in the meringue, with the sweet-tart flavor of a fresh strawberry-balsmaic vinegar buttercream. Macarons are a sensual experience, so as with a well-made chocolate bonbon, take your time. Linger a moment and savor the experience before taking that next bite.

Macarons from Chantal Guillon in Palo Alto

Savoring a Strawberry-Balsamic Macaron from Chantal Guillon

My first experience of macarons was during a business trip to Paris, but I didn’t truly appreciate them until I took a professional class in the art of making macarons at L’École Lenôtre in 2004. During the three-day class, our small group learned the recipes for 25 flavors of macarons — from the basic vanilla to the herbal lemon verbena to the earthy chestnut. Here’s an excerpt from my old blog that summarized what I learned during that class:

“So what’s the secret to good macaroons? No secret, but as with most things in pastry it’s about practice, experience, and paying attention to the details. You can’t mix the batter too much or too little; it should be smooth and shiny. You have to pipe the batter to the right size and do so consistently so that the baking is even. You have to have the oven temperature just right and vent the oven at the right time. Plus, your fillings should be flavorful and fresh.”

L'Art des Macarons, L'Ecole Lenotre, 2004

L’Art des Macarons, L’École Lenôtre, 2004

The advice remains the same for home cooks. You can make macarons at home, and they aren’t difficult! In my experience, knowing your oven — temperature and timing — is essential to making a good meringue. Fillings are limited only by your imagination. Looking for a place to start? How about chocolate macarons with chocolate or caramel fillings? This home-recipe version from French master patissier Pierre Herme is one of my favorites; it appeared in Bon Appetit Magazine in 2001. (Interesting side note: it took me awhile to find the link to this article because Bon Appetit titled the recipe “Chocolate Macaroons.”)

If you’re not ready to attempt making macarons on your own, but still want to indulge in Macaron Day, visit Chantal Guillon in Palo Alto for some of the most authentic and delicious macarons on the Peninsula. Their macarons are made in the Hayes Valley location and delivered to the Palo Alto shop daily. The counter staff are happy to help you choose an assortment from the dozen or so classic and seaonsal flavors available. Right now I’m loving the Chocolate-Coconut and the Passion Fruit.Box of macarons

What about you? Have you made macarons at home or found a favorite place to buy macarons? Give a shoutout for your favorite macaron bakers or recipes in the comments.

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