Adventures In Dessert #2: Matcha Muffins (or are they canneles?)

At long last, it’s time for the latest installment of Adventures In Dessert, where I try to replicate an intriguing sweet I’ve eaten by reverse-engineering various recipes. The saga of today’s treat begins at Academic Coffee in San Jose. As I ordered my latte, I spotted several individual banana cream pies in the refrigerator, and attempted to order one. The very friendly baristas informed me that, since they were day-olds, Third Culture Bakery had instructed them not to sell any. (I appreciate the dedication to quality, but believe me, that was a risk I remain willing to take.) Undaunted, a barista gave me a guided tour of Third Culture Bakery’s other items in the pastry case. I recognized the mochi muffin from trips to San Francisco’s Chapter 2 Coffee, but I opted for the matcha muffin instead. It turned out to be an excellent choice indeed, but something nagged at me as I devoured it. The crispy, caramelized exterior gave me a hint, but the custardy interior convinced me. That’s no muffin, buddy–that’s a cannelé!

Still obsessed a week later, I turned to Dominique Ansel’s The Secret Recipes cookbook for help. (Even if you have no desire to cook, it’s worth reading for the dreamy essays Ansel includes about pastries, baking, and creativity. They make up the first third of the book, and justify the cover price in themselves.) I used his Cannelé de Bordeaux recipe, whisking in a generous teaspoon of powdered matcha tea powder. After chilling the batter overnight, I proceeded to the most intimidating step.

I rarely make cannelés, because the process tends to annoy me. I don’t have the fancy fluted copper molds (which you must coat with melted beeswax), and the silicone molds get greasy and produce substandard results. So, I was happy to substitute plain metal muffin tins. The book directed me to preheat the molds in a 450-degree oven, and, nervously, I did. After five minutes, the kitchen started to smell like something was burning. Adhering to the “when the smoke alarm buzzes, dinner is ready” adage, I took the pan out, quickly brushed the molds with melted butter, filled them with batter (leaving a 1/4-inch space at the top), and baked for 20 minutes. While Ansel said they’d need about 35 minutes at 350 degrees after that, the muffins were looking pretty dark to me already. After turning the oven down to 350 and giving the muffins ten more minutes, I took them out to cool while I worked on the glaze.

The Third Culture matcha muffins have a lovely white chocolate-matcha drizzle, so I chopped up an ounce of white chocolate and placed it in a microwavable bowl. White chocolate tends to seize on me, so after much consideration I poured in a teaspoon of oil. A few pulses in the microwave melted it, and I whisked in about a half teaspoon of matcha powder. It ended up flowing too freely, giving me Jackson Pollock-esque squiggles instead of neat little lines. (Next time, I’ll keep the chocolate and matcha mixture unadulterated and pipe it with a paper cone.) Here’s what it looked like:

matcha1

I couldn’t resist eating one warm, but I should have taken Ansel at his word: these are much better at room temperature. Warm, the muffin was a bit sweet, and the tea flavor was not very pronounced. (When I stayed wakeful long after Game Four of the Sharks/Golden Knights playoff series had ended that night, I knew that a lack of tea in the batter was not the problem.) A room-temperature matcha muffin had much better flavor balance, and the texture had become even more luscious:

matcha2

I was very happy with the results, though I still won’t be making cannelés too often. When I do, though, I plan to use the muffin tins. While they lack the pretty fluting of an official cannelé mold, they come much closer to replicating the sought-after crust. I plan to buy a mochi muffin the next time I see one, unless someone relents and lets me have a banana cream pie instead. (Please?)

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Adventures In Dessert #1: Homemade Horchata Ice Cream

As my occasional Take Five posts have revealed, I tend to seek out three things in my travels: books, records, and dessert. I love to cook, but usually stick with established recipes. Sometimes, however, I become so obsessed with a particular treat that I feel compelled to reverse-engineer a version of it myself. Why not share the results, in all their triumphs and glitches, with all of you? So, today marks the first installment of Adventures In Dessert, featuring homemade horchata ice cream.

Artisanal ice cream has taken northern California by storm, and I consider Santa Cruz to be its unofficial epicenter. (I profile five of the city’s most influential ice cream makers in Going Coastal‘s “Rebirth of the Cool,” and continue to patronize them enthusiastically.) Of course, I keep an eye out for great ice cream wherever I go. For instance, whenever I visit San Jose, I try to work in a visit to Treatbot. Since I tend to gravitate toward chocolate- and coffee-based flavors, I was stunned by my love for their Eastside Horchata ice cream. Equally refreshing and rich, it’s a perfect finale to any meal you can find downtown. Since I can’t hop a Highway 17 Express bus whenever I crave a scoop, my duty became clear. I love to cook, and making homemade ice cream has become a favorite pastime. Horchata ice cream would be my latest culinary project.

First, I needed horchata. While I live in an area that is blessed with many wonderful taquerias and sit-down Mexican restaurants, I knew I’d get bogged down if I started comparing all the local horchatas. The grocery stores, meanwhile, had powdered mixes and bottled versions with additives that didn’t appeal to me. I would have to make my own. To complicate things, I’d need one that not only tasted good as a drink, but worked well in an ice cream base. I read Internet recipes until my eyes resembled Kermit the Frog’s, and looked in some cookbooks around the house. Eventually, I tried this formula:

HORCHATA

(Makes a scant 4 cups)

1/4 cup raw rice (I used medium-grain sushi rice, though long-grain rice is more traditional)

4 cups filtered water

1/4 tsp Mexican canela or Vietnamese cinnamon (regular cinnamon will be stronger, so you may need less of it)

4 teaspoons sugar

1/8 tsp salt

Heat the water to a strong simmer, and stir in the rice. Remove from the heat, let cool to room temperature, then cover and chill for two days. In two batches, blend the rice mixture thoroughly with the cinnamon, sugar, and salt. (There should be no large rice pieces visible.) Force mixture through a sieve lined with cheesecloth. (If you soak the rice long enough, this may not be an issue. My blender is ancient, so I was delighted to find there were no rice pieces left in the cheesecloth.) Chill until needed. Stir or shake thoroughly before serving. (You can tweak the sweetening and spice to your taste, of course; just be sure to make the necessary adjustments when you make the ice cream base.)

I tried the horchata on its own and in an iced horchata latte, and was pleased with the flavor. Luckily, I already had an ice cream base in mind. I reach for Jeni Britton Bauer‘s two cookbooks reflexively whenever ice cream enters my thoughts. Since the horchata was neither rich nor sweet, I decided that the Sweet Cream Ice Cream recipe that opens her second book, Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream Desserts, would be the right choice. I substituted two cups of horchata for two cups of the milk, and removed two teaspoons of sugar from the ice cream recipe to compensate for the sugar in the horchata. I also cut the cornstarch down to four teaspoons, since the rice thickened the mixture somewhat on its own. (I’m not enough of a food science expert to know if any rice would do that, or if the risotto-like properties of medium-grain rice are the secret.) After much mental debate, I added a scant 1/2 teaspoon of Vietnamese cinnamon to the base, since I thought that the cooking and freezing processes might make the original mixture too mild. (Again, if you’re using old-fashioned cassia cinnamon, you will most likely need less.) After letting the mixture cool and chilling it overnight, I gave it a spin in the ice cream maker…

The verdict: Success! The texture was surprisingly rich given the lower amount of fat in the horchata, and the end result was neither cloyingly sweet nor tastebud-bashingly cinnamony. I definitely want to try this with other kinds of rice (I should try long-grain first, but I do have a lot of arborio in the house). You’ll still see me in the Treatbot line (and I’ll continue to yearn for a pilgrimage to Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams in Columbus, OH), but having a quart of homemade ice cream nearby is satisfying in its own right. Meanwhile, I’d love recommendations and tips from any horchata (or ice cream) fanatics out there…