Thursday, December 11, 2008

Here’s what I learned from baking this season …. It’s not always me! by Martha

I don’t know if you’re like me, but every three or four months I discover a new recipe that gets added to my favorites list. The first time I make the dish, its love at first bite. The seasonings, the texture, the presentation …. the entire dish is perfect. I invite friends I haven’t seen for months to taste this new discovery and I, myself, never tire of preparing it. A couple of months ago, it was a monkfish dish from Lydia’s Family Table. Then it was a pasta recipe from Wolfgang. Then it was a salad from Rick Bayless. I’ll even get so involved in the dish that I’ll buy a special serving plate to complete the presentation. But, here’s the problem. Each time I prepare the recipe, it never ever duplicates the first time. Now I’ve always attributed that to me …. Do I get lazy and not follow the recipe exactly? Take Wolfgang’s Pasta Rounds … the dish is home made pasta sheets that are rolled with a spinach cheese mousse, cut into spirals and then baked. Sometimes the pasta is too crunchy, sometimes the mousse filling too heavy. It’s always good and everyone raves about it, but to me, it’s never as good as the first time.

So enter holiday season 2008. Ah, the Pecan Baci Tart. This is a recipe was just a "Baci Tart" which was supposed to duplicate the flavors of that hazelnut candy. A chocolate dough base, topped with a caramel filling, hazelnuts and drizzled chocolate. The dessert can be made with any nut …. I decided to use pecans because I thought that hazelnuts are too dense and that in their whole form would make slicing the tart difficult.

The first time I baked this was for Thanksgiving and it came out beautiful. The caramel was deep and rich, the nuts toasty. Totally yummy and a real show stopper. So when baking for the Christmas bazaar came around, of course I stepped up to make a pecan tart. And since this one what going on the table to be sold, I wanted it to be ultra perfect. I pulled the caramel sauce from the fire just at the first tiny puff of smoke. Another two seconds and it would have been a burned mess. But it was perfect. I placed each nut carefully to insure the presentation aspect. It baked beautifully and I let it cool completely before heating the chocolate in the microwave to drizzle in a creative pattern. When the chocolate was melted, I put it into a little zip-lock sandwich bag, snipped the tip and started the drizzle. So, are you ready? I squeezed the bag to force the chocolate out and the bag split at the seam, spewing a couple of big globs of chocolate. There was no way to remove the chocolate and no time or interest in rebaking. So a sprig of mint was added to help cover most of the problem. So finally we’re back to where I started ….. it’s not always me …. This time it was a flipping plastic bag!

So far, I’ve made five baci tarts and tomorrow will be baking this not in as a tart, but on a sheet pan so that I can cut it into squares to bring for a couple of parties as finger food. This recipe bakes the same time and time again. It’s beautiful, it’s fairly easy and it’s yummy!
I've even modified it by baking it on a half-sheet pan instead of in a tart pan and cutting it into inch square bit size pieces.

Pecan Baci Tart

Place the oven rack in the middle and heat the oven to 350⁰. It’s important that the oven is consistently at 350⁰. If you have an oven thermometer, use it. If you don’t have one, get one. I have an older stove and the oven temperature fluctuates dramatically. I have found that if I pre-heat the oven for an hour and keep a couple of pizza stones (or bricks) in the oven, that will keep the temperature pretty stable.

Place 2 – 3 cups of pecans on a sheet pan and place in the oven to toast. This will take about 15 – 20 minutes and I check them every five minutes, shaking them to make sure they toast evenly. (My hint here is that I buy nuts in the 2 lb. bag at Costco. I toast all of them at once and freeze what I don’t use. That way I always have toasted nuts ready to use.)

Chocolate crust

½ lb softened unsalted butter
2/3 c sugar
2 egg yolks
5 tbsp. unsweetened cocoa powder
2 c all purpose flour

In a small bowl, whisk the cocoa powder and flour. Set aside. Place the butter and sugar into a mixer bowl and beat at medium speed for 3 minutes. Add the egg yolks and beat well. Add the flour mixer all at once to the butter and beat at low speed until well mixed. Turn the dough into a 10” tart pan with a removable bottom. Take a piece of plastic wrap and using it like a little glove, start to push the dough to fit the tart pan. (You can use your hands, but the plastic wrap makes this a much cleaner job.) Work the dough up the sides of the pan. The final product does not have to be perfect. Just do your very best to line the pan evenly with the dough. Put the pan in the refrigerator and chill for 30 minutes. Once it’s chilled, put the tart pan onto a sheet pan and bake for 25 – 30 minutes. (When it comes out of the oven, it will be slightly lumpy and not at all even … don’t worry it will be fine.)

Caramel filling

While the crust is baking, it’s time to make the caramel filling. For this you’ll need a wooden spoon or silicon spatula, a small saucepan, a heavy 4-quart sauce pan (I use a copper bottom pan to ensure even heating). A candy thermometer is helpful, but not essential.

Place the following into the small saucepan:

1 c. heavy cream
¼ lb. unsalted butter

Heat over very low heat until the butter is melted. Try not to let it boil, but if it does, it won’t be a tragedy. Just be careful because if you let it boil rapidly, you’ll really have a mess.

In the larger saucepan place:

½ c. water
¼ c light corn syrup
1-1/2 c white granulated sugar

Place over high heat and stir until the sugar dissolves. Keep over high heat, without stirring, until the mixture turns a deep caramel color. This will take 10 – 15 minutes. I’ll actually walk away from it for the first 5 minutes, but once I see any hint of color, I watch this like a hawk. You’re looking for as deep a caramel as possible. This is about 350⁰ on the candy thermometer. I swirl the pan every once in a while to distribute the color. Once you achieve the color you’re looking for, remove from the heat and pour the cream/butter into the sugar mixture. Watch out! This will bubble up and sputter for a few minutes. Once it settles down, stir until you have a beautiful caramel cream.

Now here’s where you have a choice. You can either add the nuts to the caramel sauce at this point or you can pour the caramel mixture into the tart pan and place the nuts onto one by one, by hand. Whatever your choice, just make sure that the tart pan in on an even surface. I pour about half of the sauce into the tart shell and wait a minute or so to see how level the pan is. If it the sauce is pooling toward one side of the pan, I’ll level everything off with a chop stick or hot pad. You may end up with about ½ cup of the caramel cream that you can pour into a jar to use on ice cream. Now you can start placing the nuts on top of the sauce. (Be careful, the sauce is still very hot and you can burn your fingers.) I try to use nuts of all one size and place them in concentric circles, all facing the same direction. (Like the round part of the nut facing the center.) If you’re going to go to all this trouble, you might as well give it your all. I’ve even used tweezers or a bamboo skewer to straighten out a nut that’s drifted out of position.

Carefully place the tart pan and sheet pan in the oven and bake for 20 minutes. When you remove the tart, the caramel will be very bubbly and very liquid. Use a great deal of care to not “slosh” the filling and place the sheet pan on a very level surface. (Otherwise the contents will “drift” as the tart cools.) After about an hour, place the tart pan on top of a large jar and pull the collar down. If you do this while the tart is slightly warm, the collar will pull off fairly easily. If you wait too long, you may have to work harder to preserve the integrity of the shell.

Chocolate drizzle

Once the tart is completely cool, it’s time to drizzle the chocolate. Melt about 3 – 4 oz of bittersweet chocolate in a small bowl at high power in the microwave for 1 minute. Stir to make sure its smooth and then spoon into a plastic bag. (I suggest using the larger gallon size zip lock bags that are a little sturdier than the sandwich bags.) Or if you have a squeeze bottle, they are the best. Cut the corner of the plastic bag and drizzle the chocolate over the tart.

At this point, I choose the serving plate and will spoon a bit of the chocolate onto the plate. Run a spatula between the tart and the tart pan bottom. You should be able to slide the tart off the metal bottom fairly easily and you’ll be surprised at how stable the tart has become. While the pool of chocolate is still warm, place the tart onto of it. (When the chocolate cools, it will stabilize the tart on your serving plate.)

Whip up some heavy cream and serve the tart at room temperature. You can wrap the tart in plastic and store it in the refrigerator for 3 – 4 days or you can even freeze it for a month or so.

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