Monday, May 7, 2007

Almond Pound Cake with Jasmine Cream

Jasmine-Almond CakeI've been negligent in writing this entry, as I made this cake a while ago. I knew it would be a bit involved.

It all started a year or two ago when I started drinking tea in earnest for probably the third or fourth time. My tea habit is like all my other habits; it comes and goes. This particular time, I had a new expert tea-drinker friend, Lydia, to point me in new directions. She suggested I check out Red Blossom Tea Company, located right in San Francisco's Chinatown, if I wanted to try some particularly good teas. I'm usually something of an Adagio patron, but it doesn't hurt to try new things.

I ordered a gaiwan and some teas from Red Blossom and when they sent it, they included a few small sample packets of other teas, an oolong and a jasmine, the Phoenix Eye, each leaf rolled into a shape like a small football. I'd had jasmine tea before, but not like this. This wasn't astringent or bitter. When I brewed it just right, it was incredibly floral but also sweet, creamy, and very smooth. I was amazed.

I became fixated on the idea of using it for a dessert. Maybe a custard, I thought. I talked about it with Heidi and Lulu and they each separately volunteered that jasmine tea would probably pair particularly well with almonds, although neither had tried making a tea-infused custard.

I let the idea rest for a while, until March, when I was back in San Francisco for the Game Developer's Conference. I took advantage of some free time to wander over to Red Blossom's store. I met one of the proprietors, who runs the store with her husband and parents, and she insisted that I sit down for a tasting. From pu-erh to lishan formosa oolong to keemun black to wuyi oolong she led me, and an hour later (and, I'm pretty sure, about $50 worth of free tea) I stood up, thanked her, and bought several teas, including a sizable bag of jasmine. I settled on the Dragon Pearl, which smelled even better than the Phoenix Eye, and cost only a little bit more.

On my way out I remembered to ask her how I might infuse cream with the tea. "Just steep it cold," she said, "put the tea in the cream and leave it in the refrigerator for 5 hours or so."

Cut to a month or so later. I finally decided to put my scheming into action and give a cake a shot. I wanted a layer cake of sorts, slabs of almond cake interleaved with thick, sweet jasmine cream custard. I poked around my cookbooks -- I'm really not much of a baker, so this is forgotten territory for me -- and decided to appropriate two recipes from the Tartine cookbook that Lulu brought me as a gift. Certainly, I told myself, there are worse places to turn for advice on baking desserts. Tartine is one of those places I'm sure to visit every time I'm back in San Francisco.

I made the jasmine custard as a modified version of the Tartine chocolate pudding:

Jasmine-Almond CakeJasmine Pastry Cream

1 1/4c whole milk
1/2c + 2T heavy cream
1/4c cornstarch
3/4c sugar
3 large eggs
1/4t salt
5T jasmine tea leaves

At least 5 hours ahead of time, mix the cream and milk and add the tea leaves, stir, cover, and refrigerate.

When the cream-milk mixture has steeped, add it, with the tea leaves, to a saucepan and bring to just under a boil. This part is important both because it's what the original Tartine recipe says, but also because jasmine tea will become bitter if heated above 180-190F, so I recommend using a candy thermometer here to be sure.

While that's heating, in a mixing bowl, comine the cornstarch and sugar with a fork. In another mixing bowl, whisk the eggs with the salt until blended, then add to the sugar mixture and whisk until well-combined.

Pour the hot milk mixture through a strainer into a bowl to remove the tea leaves. Discard the leaves, as you'll need the strainer again in a bit. Pour half the hot liquid to the egg mixture while whisking continuously. You don't want to add the milk so fast that it cooks the eggs, so don't pour too fast. Pour the egg mixture back into the pan with the rest of the milk mixture and cook over medium heat, whisking constantly, until the mixture has visibly thickened and registers 208F on your candy thermometer. This should take 5 to 7 minutes, depending on how cold your eggs are.

Immediately pour the contents of the pan through the sieve again. Blend with an immersion blender for a full 5 minutes until no lumps are visible, stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl with a spatula as necessary.

I'm reasonably happy with how that worked out, although it never stiffened up to my liking. Perhaps some deft use of egg whites would have helped, or perhaps just using more cornstarch? It was delicious, but it was really very runny. Tartine's is very solid; it'll hold a spoon upright, but without the chocolate, mine just didn't firm up in the same way. Something to figure out for next time.

For the cake, Lulu suggested Tartine's Almond-Lemon Tea Cake, omitting the lemon:

Jasmine-Almond CakeAlmond Tea Cake

3/4c pastry flour
1/2t baking powder
1/8t salt
5 large eggs
1t vanilla extract
3/4 almond paste, at room temperature
1c sugar
1c unsalted butter, at room temperature

Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat the oven to 350F. Lightly butter and flour a 9-by-5 loaf pan, knocking out the excess flour.

To make the cake, sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt twice. In a small bowl, combine the eggs and vanilla and whisk together just to combine. In the bowl of a stand mixer [Ed: I did this all by hand with a wooden spoon and whisk, and it is incredibly difficult. I don't recommend it] fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the almond paste on low speed until it breaks up. This can take up to a minute, depending on how soft and warm it is. Slowly add the sugar in a steady stream, beating until incorporated. If you add the sugar too quickly, the paste won't break up as well.

Cut the butter into 1T pieces. Continue on low speed while adding the butter, a tablespoon at a time, for about minute. Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Then turn on the mixer to medium speed and beat until the mixture is light in color and fluffy, 3 to 4 minutes. With the mixer still on medium, add the eggs in a very slow, steady stream and mix until incorporated. Stop the mixer and again scrape down the sides. Turn it on to medium and mix for another 30 seconds. Add the flour mixture in two batches, stirring after each addition until just incorporated. Scrape down the sides of the bowl one last time, and then spoon the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the surface.

Bake until the top springs back when lightly touched and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, 45 to 50 minutes. Let cool in the pan on a wire rack.

That all went swimmingly. The cake came out well. Now, to put them together. The cake is extremely delicate when warm because of all the butter in it, so I refrigerated it during the day while I was at work so it would be solid enough to slice into layers. I came home and found that, indeed, it gets very solid when it's cold, for the same reason. All that butter, when refrigerated, becomes dense and heavy.

It did make it easy to slice into layers, though, so I took a bread knife and carefully cut through the side of the cake to make 3 slabs. I lined the loaf pan with plastic wrap and gently put 1 slab back in, then layered it with about 1/4" of the jasmine custard, put the next slab in, another layer of custard, and topped it with the final slab of cake. I put it back in the refrigerator overnight.

Jasmine-Almond CakeThe next day, I turned it out onto a plate, intending to be done with it, but I really wasn't satisfied with how it looked without frosting around the outside. I also had quite a bit of the jasmine custard left, but I had one problem: the custard was still runny. Even chilled, it was relatively thick, but still very much a liquid. The layers of the cake would readily slide against each other if I gently pushed on one, and if the custard couldn't hold it together in the layers, it certainly wouldn't stick as frosting for the outside.

Remembering a video I'd seen (and Lulu'd reminded me of) at Beard Papa on how they make their cream puff filling, I took the remaining whipping cream and whipped it as stiff as I could without actually turning it into butter. Then I folded it into the jasmine custard, hoping to get a nice, stiff whipped cream texture out of it. It didn't quite work as well as I'd hoped, because the whipped cream stayed as lumps in the custard and required enough beating to integrate it that it lost a lot of its loft. Still, it was significantly stiffer than before.

I frosted the outside of the cake gingerly with the custard, and tried to give it ornamental piping on top, but even with the whipped cream, the custard flattened into blobs within a few minutes. I topped the whole thing with some toasted almond slices, and took it with me to cooking night.

Overall, I was particularly happy with the jasmine cream. The cold steeping with the short period of heat right at the end managed to infuse the cream strongly enough that it was a very notable flavor, but not at all bitter nor astringent.

That said, the custard and cake didn't go together as well as I'd hoped. The cake, as I mentioned, got very dense and heavy when chilled, but the custard was barely firm enough when chilled, so I had no choice but to serve it cold.

Furthermore, the custard was sweet enough that the cake could have been less so. If I make this again, I'll pick a different recipe for the jasmine cream, something like a stiffer frosting, but still creamy and smooth. I'd probably also make a totally separate frosting for the outside, something like a more solid buttercream, and not try to use the same recipe for the frosting and layer filling.

As for the cake, I'd pick something less like a pound cake and more like a fluffy cornbread made with almond meal. The fat content was just too high; it really needed to be an airier, fluffier cake to complement the heavy, creamy custard. As it was, it was a little overwhelming, and the flavors were a bit hard to really tell apart.

That said, for my first attempt at baking a dessert in a long time, it really did come out very well. It tasted delicious, looked good, and the jasmine cream was to die for. I found enough excuses to lick whisks or spatulas or bowls while cleaning up from cooking that I probably ate a whole cup of the custard on its own.

And I'd do it again.



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