Thursday, December 17, 2015

Party prep

My apologies for the lapse in posting, but I fell ill right after my Christmas party last Saturday and I'm only just feeling halfway human again today.  More about this in the next post, but for now I had talked previously about a post on finishing the Christmas cake and making a full batch of mince tarts, so here it is!

I had mentioned earlier that the traditional method of finishing a fruitcake is to first cover it with a layer of marzipan or almond paste and then frost it with royal icing, however, I happened to have some white fondant in the freezer that was left over from a previous fruitcake project, so I thought I would use it here.

I purchased my fondant from McCall's, a wonderful baking and cake decorating supply store here in Toronto, but a Google search should provide you with lots of possibilities.  Fondant is really easy to work with and you can make all kinds of decorations with it.  You can colour it with food colouring or it is available for sale in many different colours.

It often needs some softening up when you first open it, so what I usually do is just take the twist tie off the plastic bag and roll it back and forth on the counter with the palm of my hand until it softens a little.

Then, looking at the size of the Christmas cake and knowing that I will need enough fondant to cover only the top with about a ½-inch, I estimate how big a piece of the fondant to twist off and seal the remainder back in the plastic bag.  I put the fondant back in the plastic container, cover it and put it back in the freezer to use later.  If tightly sealed to protect it from drying out, fondant will keep in the freezer indefinitely.

I knead the ball of fondant I am using a few more minutes to soften it further and then roll it out with a rolling pin into a rectangular sheet about a ½-inch thick and big enough to cover the top of the cake. You might find that the fondant sticks a little to the counter and rips when you try to peel it off. You can try pressing small rips back together, but if it is badly damaged, it might be easier just to roll it back up into a ball and start again, this time dusting the counter with a little icing sugar. If you do this, be sure not to flip the sheet of fondant since you want one side to be free of icing sugar. You will be placing this side down onto the cake so that the fondant sheet will be less likely to detach. The icing sugar stops the fondant from sticking to the counter -- it also stops it from sticking to the cake!

I unwrap the cake completely and cover it with the sheet of fondant (un-sugared side down, if you dusted the counter with icing sugar).

Press the fondant firmly onto the cake to adhere it.

Using a sharp knife, trim the excess fondant from the edges of the cake.

Smooth the fondant with your fingertips dipped in cool water.  Place on a platter and allow to dry at room temperature, then cover loosely with plastic wrap and refrigerate until an hour or so before you are ready to slice and serve.

On to the mince tarts! I mentioned earlier that I would post an entry about making pastry from scratch and here is the method I have been using for years -- basically since I was a teenager -- never having had it fail to be light and flaky. Everyone has their own favourite recipe and method and of course there are many different types of specialty pastries like sweet ones, savoury ones, pastries made with butter, puff pastry etc. This particular recipe makes a good, basic all-purpose pie and tart pastry.  I've used it for both sweet fruit pies and for savoury quiches and it works wonderfully with both.

I first discovered the recipe in one of my mother's cookbooks: The Better Homes and Gardens Dessert cookbook, part of a "cooking encyclopedia" from Better Homes and Gardens published back in the 1960's.

A classic and one of my first culinary "bibles"!
I love the photographs and illustrations!  They're so wonderfully retro.

To accommodate the gluten-sensitive among my friends and family, I thought I would try this method using a gluten-free flour mix. Big mistake! Although the dough was wonderfully light and soft, it just would not stay together when rolled out to any suitable thinness and simply shredded apart. I tried again using half gluten-free and half all-purpose flour, but again, no luck. Finally, I relented and went back to using all-purpose flour only. The photo above shows the preparations for my first attempt, so the flour in the bowl is the gluten-free mix.

The recipe for a basic 9" two-crust pie or two dozen small tarts calls for 2 cups of flour, 1 teaspoon of salt, 2/3 cup of shortening and 5-7 tablespoons of cold water. I have found that there are two keys to making foolproof flaky pastry with this recipe: cut the shortening in two parts (i.e. 1/3 cup, then 1/3 cup again) and once the water has been added, handle the dough as lightly as possible. The above photo shows the flour and salt after I worked in the first 1/3 cup of shortening using my fingers. I find I can get a better mixture using my fingers than with a pastry cutter, but some folks swear the pastry cutter is the way to go, so it's really a personal choice.  

After working in the second 1/3 cup of shortening the clumps are noticeably larger.  To add the cold water, put some in a measuring cup, making sure it's good and cold! Using a 1 tablespoon-sized measuring spoon, add 3-4 tablespoons of cold water to the bowl then holding the bowl with both hands, gently toss the the dough around until the clumps start gathering together into ever larger chunks. When you don't see any more water in the bowl, add another tablespoon from the measuring cup and toss again. Once you've added around 6 tablespoons of water, try tossing the dough together with your fingertips, trying to get the clumps to form a single ball. It may take some gentle pressing and/or adding another tablespoon or two of water, but you should be able to form a light, soft, smooth ball. Do not roll or knead the dough, but help it come together on its own. I've made this pastry so many times over the years that now I just pass the bowl under a tap of running cold water for a second or so to get the exact (or near-exact) measure of water needed.

I've found that this dough is fairly forgiving in that if you add a wee bit too much water and the dough ends up sticky, you can add a small sprinkle of flour and gently work it in without compromising the flakiness.

I've also read recipes that suggest wrapping the ball of dough in plastic wrap and refrigerating for 10 minutes or so to let the gluten develop.  If your kitchen is warm, this is probably a good idea, but I've just let it sit on the counter covered with a clean towel for 10 minutes and never had a problem.  As long as it has time to rest for a bit, rolling it out will be much easier.

Grease a 24-cavity mini tart tin (a 12-cavity regular tart tin would work as well, but somehow mincemeat always tastes better in smaller tarts, I think!). Roll out the ball of dough into a sheet about ¼-inch thick and using the appropriate size cutters, cut out tops and bottoms. Place the bottoms in the cavities of the tart tin and gently press into place.

Place a generous tablespoon of mincemeat into each pastry cup.

Moisten your fingers with water and run them around the edge of one of the pastry tart tops. Place top moistened side down on a tart and gently crimp around the edges to seal. Prick each tart with a fork to vent.

Bake in a 450ºF oven for 12 minutes. Remove from the oven, let cool a few minutes then carefully lift each tart up and leave tilted until completely cool. Some of the mincemeat filling inevitably boils out on the tart pan and can make it incredibly difficult to remove some of the tarts once it cools, so by lifting the tarts while the spilt filling is still soft, you will be able to easily remove the tarts later when they are cool. Let the empty tart pan soak in hot soapy water and you should be able to easily clean off any spilt filling.

A plate of Christmas treats, ready to party!  Shortbread by my cousin, Lynn. Cheers!

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