Sunday, July 15, 2012

Luncheon Dishes: Sausage and Shallot Tart

When it comes to cooking, I am notorious for making things hard on myself. I always sail into a situation with the best of intentions, and end up overcomplicating things to the point that I’m stressed out and panicky. I’ve been struggling with this for years, and it’s true that if I consider a full retrospective of my culinary progress, I’ve come a long way, I still feel like I have quite a ways to go.

The hard part for me— in fact, for both me and my usual partner in entertaining crimes—is editing. Not so much in an individual dish, but in the overall composition of an event. We think of this or that to make, and every single thing sounds great, so we make it all. We wind up over budget, with too many servings of each dish and too many options.

What makes this interesting is that one of my first jobs was in catering sales. I talked with clients about their events, understood what their culinary needs were, and came up with menu options and pricing for them. Part of my role was to help them stay within their budget, which was often accomplished by finding lower priced alternatives, or by reworking a menu to exclude certain items.

So it should come as no surprise that when my third grader’s teacher announced that they would be having “heritage day” during the last week of school, and that each child would be responsible for bringing a dish that represented their ancestry in some way, I immediately made the jump to hypercomplication.

I gave my son the choices for his ancestry: German, Dutch, French, Welsh, English, Irish, and Polish. He immediately picked French. Naturally this is where the complication comes in. Last names, of course, can signify many things—a trade or profession (Miller), a relationship (Johnson), a characteristic (Small), or a region or town or origin (DiCaprio), among other
things. Our name falls into this last category.

For reasons that I cannot articulate, I decided that thedish had to be authentic to the region that my husband’s family was actually from. Or at least, the ingredients did. Why did I make this decision? Would twenty three 9-year-olds call bullshit if I served them something from Provence or Alsace or Burgundy? Would they even know where the town that our last name comes from was in France? Was I just crazy?

Of course the answers to those questions are: I have no idea, no, no, and probably. I suppose I should have been grateful he didn’t pick Polish, since I’ve never tried to make pierogi, and I’m sure it would have been a disaster. As it was, I was grasping at straws to figure out what to make. So I turned to the modern day Oracle at Delphi: Google. I looked at some of the menus of restaurants in the region and found something that sounded both interesting and palatable to 9 year olds. A sausage and shallot tart.

Because I was dealing with children, I minced the shallots pretty finely, a preparation I modified when I made it for a broader audience. The rest of the dish, however, is exactly the way I presented it to the kids. My son declared it to be tasty, although not the best thing I’d ever made. I excuse this faint praise, because unless we’re talking about brownies, Toll House cookies or chicken pot pie, his enthusiasm for my cooking is best described as “restrained.” Not that he doesn’t like it, but if it’s not one of his favorites, it’s generally dismissed as “good” or “fine.”

This tart consists of a savory short crust base, with a slightly custardy filling topped with sautéed shallots and sausage. I made it initially with sweet Italian sausage, and then again with hot, because the store was out of sweet, and decided I like it better with the sweet. The heat of the hot sausage was just too fighty with the rest of the flavors for me. But it’s entirely a matter of preference, and if you like hot sausage better than sweet, it will still be good.

The shallots are cooked in the residual fat from the sausages, to give them a flavor kick as well. To add a little authenticity to the dish, I used fromage blanc as the dairy component of the filling, with an egg and an additional yolk. Although I’ve made no secret of my feelings for quiche and nything that closely resembles it, I was pleasantly surprised by the result of this tart, and the way the bottom crust stayed crisp, even with the cheese/egg filling.

You should be able to get fromage blanc in a decently stocked grocery store. My grocery store keeps it with “specialty” cheeses. It has a consistency rather like sour cream, but I can’t speak to substitutes. Online sources offer both quark and Greek yogurt as ideas, and those may work, but I didn’t try them, so I can’t say if they’ll hold up to the oven’s heat.

I made this in a rectangular tart pan because it was necessary for me to cut it into 30 2-bite portions, but it could just as easily be made in a round pan. The cooking time for the blind baking would be the same, but it might need a little longer in the oven the second time around to set the filling in the middle.

So the story has a happy ending—the tart turned out, the kids liked it reasonably well, it was pretty easy to make. I don’t think my overcomplication complex is cured, but I’ve identified another symptom. In the past I’ve recognized the “too many servings” and the “too many options” symptoms as primary. Now I see that I need to add, “excessive need for authenticity” in certain situations to my list. I guess I can categorize this discovery as, “life is a journey, not a destination.” But next time I swear I’m just making French bread and calling it a day.

Sausage and Shallot Tart
Serves 6-8

For the crust:
2 cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
16 tablespoons cold butter (two 4 ounce sticks),
cut into small cubes
3-5 tablespoons ice water

For the filling:
¾ pound of Italian sausage, casings removed
1 teaspoon olive oil
2 medium shallots, sliced into thin rings
½ cup white wine
¾ cup fromage blanc
1 large egg + 1 large egg yolk
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
Salt + freshly ground pepper

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease a 12” x 4” rectangular tart pan with a removable bottom.

To make the crust:
In the work bowl of a food processor, combine flour and salt. Pulse 2-3 times to combine. Add cubed butter and pulse 10-12 times, until butter is in small bits. It will look something like almond meal. With the motor running, add the water, a tablespoon at a time, through the feed tube. The mixture should be damp but not sticky. Check the consistency by stopping and squeezing the dough together. It should clump and form a mass, but not stick to your fingers like a paste. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured board, and work it gently into a cohesive mass. Pat it into a rectangle, and roll it out to a large rectangle, approximately 14” x 6” and about 1/8” thick.

To move the dough into the tart pan, roll it up on the rolling pin (rather the way a roller shade rolls up), and move the rolling pin over the pan. Starting at one end, unroll the pastry. You should start unrolling over the counter an inch or two before the edge of the pan. This will give you enough dough at that end to pat down into the pan and up the side.

Gently work the dough into the crease of the pan and up the sides, trying not to stretch it (stretched dough shrinks. There will be some shrinkage, but you want to minimize it). The biggest problem with rectangular pans is that the corners punch through. If that happens, just patch the hole with some of the excess dough.

Once you have the pan well lined, remove the excess overhanging dough by rolling your rolling pin over the top. The sharp edges of the pan will cut the dough, and you can just pull the excess away.

Line the dough with a piece of aluminum foil, and fill it with beans, pie weights, or uncooked rice. Bake for 12-15 minutes. Remove the foil and the weights. The dough will have a partially cooked appearance. Parts of it will be translucent, parts will be opaque. Return the pan to the oven for an additional 10-12 minutes, or until the crust is just starting to turn golden. Remove from the oven and allow to cool completely before filling.

For the filling:
Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the sausage, breaking it up into small pieces with the side of a spoon as it cooks. Cook the sausage through, 10-15 minutes. Remove the sausage from the pan to a bowl, leaving as much of the residual fat in the pan as possible.

Add the shallots to the fat in the pan, and sauté until just starting to brown, about 10 minutes. Add the wine, and scrape up the bits in the bottom of the pan. Allow the wine to cook down until almost completely evaporated. Scrape the shallots into another bowl and allow to cool slightly.

In a bowl, combine the fromage blanc, egg, egg yolk and Dijon mustard. Add a pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper. Turn sausage out onto a cutting board and chop it a little more finely. Do the same with the shallots (this makes them easier to eat, as they’re not in long strands). When the crust is cool, pour the egg mixture over the bottom of the crust and spread evenly. Scatter the shallots over the egg mixture, and the sausage over the shallots.

Return the tart to the oven and bake 20-25 minutes. Remove from the oven, allow to set up for 10 minutes, then serve warm or at room temperature.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Desserts: Flourless Chocolate Cake

Well the last of the Candy Holidays is behind us until the fall. Just as people think of Thanksgiving as the start to the winter holiday season, so I consider Halloween as the start of the Candy Holiday season. And the Candy Holiday season is a lot longer than the winter holiday season.

I’m as big a fan of chocolate as the next person, but I also have four small children (and an almost non-existent personal will power). Starting with Trick or Treating, there seems to be some event for which the stores are stocking their “seasonal” shelves with various-shaped Peeps for between six and seven months (depending on the timing of Easter). Candy corn of various shades—yellow/orange,red/green or pastel colors (really?)—calls to me with its corn syrupy siren song. And don’t even get me started on Cadbury Crème Eggs.

The Candy Holidays kick off with Halloween. Once they’ve cleared out the last of the orange-wrapped miniature candy bars, they truck in Hershey’s kisses in silver, red, and green foil. From there it’s but a moment before the heart shaped Whitman’s samplers are displayed. On February 15th, it’s Reese’s Eggs (another notable weakness of mine) and chocolate bunnies. When I bought a package of Cadbury Mini Eggs in February, and confessed to the checker that I just couldn’t resist them, even though Easter was weeks away, she told me that, in fact, they’d received all the Cadbury stuff in DECEMBER, I suppose in the hopes that they’d dedicate some floor space to it during the Christmas holidays.

I’m just grateful it hasn’t occurred to Brach’s to make patriotic candy corn yet.

So this year, Easter brunch was at my house. After a morning of eating pastel M&Ms and Kit Kats wrapped in cheery pink and blue, I wanted something more sophisticated for the grownups. I teetered between a pound cake served with…something (I never actually got very far down the pound cake path), or a chocolate cake of some description. I decided on a flourless chocolate cake because I’d been working on this recipe and it seemed like a good time to break it out. This cake is not a little bit of work, but it’s a departure from the usual traits you find in a flourless chocolate cake, which to me makes the work it requires worthwhile. At least it’s effort expended for something a bit different.

This is not a flourless chocolate cake for people who like the thick, dense, fudgy product that normally represents the genre. This is a flourless chocolate cake for people who want something a little more cake-like (although, let’s face it, it’s still exceptionally rich from the chocolate). This also has a lovely crusty top provided courtesy of the brown sugar.

It’s also a flourless chocolate cake for people who can’t eat almonds. Often flourless chocolate cake recipes substitute almond meal to provide some of the structure that would normally come from the flour. While my family has no food allergies, plenty do, and nuts are one of the usual suspects.

In fact, it’s rather like a cross between “true” flourless chocolate cake (by which I mean the kind with almond meal), and a brownie. Whatever you call it, the recipe calls for a fair bit of whipping. In fact, you may think I’m exaggerating when you read how much whipping there is. Or that I’m kidding.

You start by beating a lot of air into the eggs, and then folding in whipped cream. The eggs will expand hugely in volume. They’ll then deflate somewhat when you add the chocolate, and you’ll reintroduce some volume in the form of the whipped cream. All of this sort of evens out, and you wind up with a cake that bakes down but doesn’t slump as much as the almond flour variety. As a matter of fact, my husband said he didn’t care for it precisely because it isn’t the usual fudgy, squidgy product that we usually think of when we think of a flourless chocolate cake. So you might want to prepare your audience before you serve it to them.

I presented it with vanilla ice cream and homemade caramel sauce. You could also serve it with whipped cream or crème fraiche, if that’s more your speed. If you like fruit and chocolate (I don’t) you could serve it with strawberries or with a strawberry sauce. However you serve it, it’s a fitting end to the Candy Holiday season.

A note about the picture: the ice cream may make it appear that the cake is quite thick—possibly as much as 2 inches. However, the scoop I used for the ice cream was one of those smaller ones that holds about a rounded tablespoon. So the ice cream scoops themselves are only about 2” high. The cake is probably just over an inch thick. I don’t want anyone to look at the picture and think that the ice cream scoops are “normal” ones, because perspective would then dictate that the cake was quite a bit thicker than it really is.

Flourless Chocolate Cake
Makes 8 – 10 servings

1 cup light brown sugar
6 eggs
14 oz chocolate, melted (I use a mix of bittersweet and semi-sweet—about 9 oz of bittersweet, the rest semi)
½ cup cocoa powder
4 tablespoons Frangelico, divided
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 ¼ cup heavy cream
3 tablespoons powdered sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Spray a 9” or 10” round springform pan with nonstick spray.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine eggs and brown sugar. Add salt, vanilla, and Frangelico. Beat 10 minutes or until eggs are 4-5x greater in volume than they were. They’ll deflate a bit later on—that’s OK.

Place all chocolate in a bowl and microwave until melted. Best to melt it in 1 minute increments, checking between each. Once it softens, reduce to 30 second increments. In my microwave this takes 2 ½ minutes total, but power varies by microwave. Stir in the cocoa. Allow to cool slightly. You want it to still be pourable, but not so hot it will cook the eggs when you add it to the egg mixture.

In a separate bowl, whip the cream (if you have a second work bowl for your stand mixer, lucky you. Otherwise I recommend using a hand mixer in another bowl). Once the cream thickens slightly, add the powdered sugar a tablespoon at a time, beating it in to avoid lumps. Once the powdered sugar is all added, beat in the Frangelico. Continue beating until the cream is thick. As the beaters go around, they will leave a path through the cream, and you’ll be able to see the bottom of the bowl. This will take probably 5 minutes.

Remove the mixer bowl from the stand mixer, and scrape the melted chocolate into the egg mixture. This is where the egg mixture will deflate by about half. This is expected. Also, because the egg mixture is cooler than the chocolate will probably be, the chocolate will solidify a bit. Turn the mixer back on and let it run while you’re whipping the cream (if you’re using a hand mixer and separate bowl for the cream. Otherwise, turn the mixer on and let it run for a minute before swapping out the work bowls and cleaning the whip attachment so you can beat the cream). Use a spatula to scrape the bottom of the egg mixture bowl to get any chocolate that may be lurking there. Don’t worry if there seem to be some lumps of chocolate. Even if they don’t get incorporated during the folding that comes next, they’ll melt when it cooks.

Once you have the chocolate well incorporated into the egg mixture, fold in the whipped cream carefully, trying to lose as little volume as possible. You won’t be able to get the two mixtures completely combined—just try to fold until there are no obvious white streaks. The mixture may appear somewhat mottled—lighter and darker chocolate streaks. This is fine. Scrape the mixture into the prepared springform pan.

Bake at 350 for 1 hour and ten minutes, checking at 50 minutes. The cake will appear craggy and cracked. You want it quite well set.

Allow the cake to cool completely. After about 15 minutes, you can run a knife around the edge and release the springform pan. The cake will sink in the middle during cooling. This is normal. Serve with the accompaniment(s) of your choice.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Side Dishes: Parmesan Fennel

Every August I feel guilty. Bloggers and food magazines are raving about and providing recipes for sweet corn and super ripe tomatoes. And while I like those things just fine, I don’t feel like I live for tomato season. It makes me feel like there’s something wrong with me as a food person. Really, I prefer fall, winter and early spring vegetables. Butternut squash, Brussels sprouts, leeks, celery root, fennel. Some people feel their heart go pitter-pat when they see the first ripe tomatoes in the market. I feel that same emotion when I see the first stalks of Brussels sprouts, like enormous lumpy unopened parasols, or the bunches of Swiss chard that look like (and are probably somehow botanically related to) a weed we used to pick when I was a kid—they were the same shape, but green all the way through, and we’d pick them on walks during preschool and hold them over our head as “umbrellas.”

I can’t really say why this is the case. Surely nothing is more versatile than the tomato, and nothing is easier to prepare than corn on the cob. But maybe that’s it—maybe I like the challenge of fall/winter vegetables. Their edible parts are so often hidden under tough rinds or strange skins (for which see: squash, butternut and root, celery). Some of them seem more like additions to things, rather than things themselves (Exhibit A: leeks). They insist that you be a bit creative with them. For this reason, I love vegetarian cookbooks. I probably have a dozen cookbooks with titles like, “Vegetables” and, “Vegetables from an Italian Garden” and, “Rose Elliot’s New Complete Vegetarian.” I am as devoted a carnivore as you’ll find, but I consider myself to be more of a meat-and-broccoli gal, than meat-and-potatoes gal (not that I don’t love the starches too—it makes me sad that there’s no such thing as a carbotarian, because I’d be such a good one. I guess I just love it all. *sigh*).

So I’m always trying to think of new ways to serve these sort of odd-man-out vegetables. Flip through your average cookbook, and about the only way cabbage is presented is in cole slaw. Broccoli or cauliflower might be roasted. Brussels sprouts (if they appear at all) are generally roasted or sautéed with bacon. All fine, but like anything they become less interesting with repetition. And I’m as guilty of that repetition as anyone. For a long time, the only way I cooked fennel was to quarter it and roast it with some olive oil, salt, and pepper. Delicious, but after awhile, dull.

So I thought to change it up a bit. I cut the fennel into strips about the size of a French fry, tossed it with olive oil and salt, and spread it out on baking sheets. I grated parmesan cheese over it, and roasted it at 450 degrees. The result was soft fennel with a crisp coating of cheese. There were a few strands that had roasted to an almost charred state, and all of it was beautifully brown. It required little effort beyond slicing and grating. The oven did all the work.

If you’ve never had fennel, or never had it cooked, this is a good introduction. The resemblance to French fries makes it approachable, and so far I haven’t found too many things that can’t be made palatable with some cheese. I highly recommend this as a side dish for steak or rack of lamb. If you’re one of those tomato-and-corn lovers, it may help to tide you over until the summer produce shows up. If you’re a winter vegetable lover like me, you may have found a new favorite.

Parmesan Fennel
Serves 4

Two large fennel bulbs
2 tablespoons olive oil
Kosher salt
About ½ cup grated parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Trim fronds and stalks from fennel. Using a vegetable peeler, shave off any browned spots. Ideally you want to choose unblemished bulbs, but sometimes you have to pick the best you can get. If there’s lots of discoloration, pick really large bulbs that you can peel a layer off and still have a reasonable amount left.

Cut the bulb in quarters and cut out the solid core in the middle. Cut the quarters into strips about ¼” thick, about the thickness of the average fast food French fry. Don’t worry if the slices fall apart—some will stay together, but some won’t. Toss the strips and slices in a bowl with the olive oil and a pinch of salt.

On a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, spread the fennel in a single layer (you may need more than one baking sheet to achieve a single layer with this much fennel). Using a microplane grater, or the smallest holes on a box grater, grate the parmesan over the fennel. The fennel should be well coated with cheese—it will look like it’s been through a heavy frost, or a light snowfall. It’s best to grate the cheese over the fennel, rather than grate it ahead and scatter it. It becomes somewhat compacted when you pick it up to scatter it. It will scatter more evenly if you grate and scatter at the same time.

Roast the fennel for 20-25 minutes, or until the cheese is golden brown. Some of the pieces on the outer edges may get a bit darker—that’s fine. You want some contrast between the soft/crisp pieces and the crisp/crisp pieces. If you let the cheese get quite brown, you’ll actually get two dishes for the price of one. The bits of parmesan webbing between the fennel pieces are a sort of parmesan crisp or “tuille” that will add nice contrast to the dish as well. Remove from the oven when done to your liking and serve.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Basics: Scones

I have two recipes for you today: Plain Scones, and Bacon Scones with Maple Sugar.

The first thing I realized about scones is that there’s not really anything particularly amusing to say about them. I’ve been trying for a week now to come up with some clever or witty take on scones, and I come up short every time. It’s not like they’re an object of ridicule, nor do they require a particularly challenging technique that can be unwittingly executed incorrectly with hilarious results. They’re just a fairly basic quick bread. So for Plain Scones, I fear I have nothing diverting to offer.

This recipe makes eight very simple, very mildly flavored scones. They’re the recipe to use if you’ve made your own jam (or been given some). If you want to pep them up with dried fruit (blueberries or cherries) or other flavorings (cinnamon, perhaps), you could. I went with a very basic nutmeg, which I grate fresh using a little grater I have, and grate until the dusting of nutmeg is visible on top of the flour. Then I pulse it in. It amounts to probably two two-finger pinches. You can use more or less, depending on your affinity for nutmeg.

Although the flavor is mild, the texture tends to the soft side. The bit of sugar over the top gives them a nice crunch and a bit of contrast. This is a good recipe to memorize (and not hard to do either, since almost everything is in quantities of two) and be able to whip up quickly on a Sunday morning when it turns out it’s much nicer outside than you thought it would be, and everyone decides to sit out on the porch and have coffee or tea. Appear 25 minutes later with a plate of scones and some nice jam, when everyone is just ready for their second cup of coffee, and you’ll be a hero.

Now, the bacon scones actually have a bit of a backstory. Not a ton, I don’t want you to get your hopes up too high, but more than the Plain Scones. The idea for these came out of a passing remark. A batch of the plain scones was in the oven, and my husband walked in and said, “Bacon scones?” I said, “No, regular scones.” He said, “They smell like bacon scones.” When he tasted them, I asked him what he thought. “Not enough bacon,” was the response. OK, OK, I get it.

Naturally, my first move was to post about it on FB: “Bacon scones: a good idea, or a disaster waiting to happen?” One friend commented that they would probably need a maple glaze of some kind. I remembered a bottle of granulated maple sugar I had picked up some time ago. This happens—I’ll buy non-perishable ingredients and just hang on to them until they come in handy. I scattered a bit of the sugar over the tops while they were baking, and realized when I tasted them that the sugar needed to be in the scones, as well as on them.

The second batch was perfect. Which makes a sort of a dull story in the end—I told you not to get your hopes up—but a really excellent scone.

However, a couple of comments on ingredients:

I use a very thick cut bacon for these. This recipe has five primary ingredients—if any one of them is less than great, it will be apparent. So I use my “best” bacon for them. I also cook it in the oven. I’ve never been able to figure out why everyone doesn’t do this, but I know people who don’t. I think the bacon gets crisper (I like really crisp bacon), and there’s less mess. Although I don’t, you can even cook it on a rack over a pan and let the fat drip down away from the bacon, making it “healthier” (theoretically). You do need a rimmed baking sheet (but a 9 x 13” roasting pan would do fine), and I use nonstick foil. It goes in a 400 degree oven for about 25 minutes. I drain it immediately, and it crisps up so I can crumble it.

Granulated maple sugar, which is really key in these, is hella expensive. It runs about $20 a pound at my grocery store. You can order it from The King Arthur Flour Company. Eight ounces will set you back about ten bucks, plus shipping. The good thing is you don’t need much, and it keeps for a really long time. The King Arthur website has lots of uses for it, if you decide you don’t want to keep it hanging around. Of you could use it the way you use Turbinado sugar (sometimes sold as Sugar in the Raw)—use it on cookies or muffins to add a little crunch. It has the benefit of adding the maple flavor as well. If you don’t have the maple sugar, you could try using brown sugar, or Turbinado sugar. I didn’t try the recipe with either of these, so I can’t certify your results, but if you go that route, I’d be interested in hearing if they’re successful.

So there you have it: one basic recipe, and one amped up recipe. Not as much in the way of chat as accompany some other recipes, perhaps, but that’s how it is sometimes.

Plain Scones
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
2 tablespoons butter, cut into cubes
1 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon Turbinado sugar

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F
2. In a food processor, combine flour, baking powder, sugar, nutmeg, and salt. Pulse 2-3 times to combine
3. Scatter butter cubes over top of flour mixture. Pulse 8-10 times until butter is in small pieces (it will be barely visible in with the flour).
4. With the motor running, pour the cream into the flour mixture, and continue pulsing until barely combined. The mixture will seem a bit damp and clumpy.
5. Turn dough out onto a floured board or counter top. Pat into a circle about 7” across and about ½” – ¾” thick. Using a knife or a bench scraper, cut the circle into 8 wedges. Place the wedges on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
7. Using a pastry brush or small spoon, and the last of the cream in the measuring cup, brush the top of each wedge with cream, and scatter with 1 tablespoon of Turbinado sugar.
8. Bake 20-22 minutes, or until golden. Remove from oven and cool on a rack for 10 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Bacon Scones with Maple Sugar
4 – 5 strips thick cut bacon, cooked very crisp, crumbled
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 tablespoons + 1 tablespoon granulated maple sugar
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons butter, cut into cubes
1 cup heavy cream

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F
2. In a food processor, combine flour, baking powder, 2 tablespoons maple sugar, regular sugar, and salt. Pulse 2-3 times to combine.
3. Scatter butter cubes over top of flour mixture. Pulse 8-10 times until butter is in small pieces (it will be barely visible in with the flour).
4. With the motor running, pour the cream into the flour mixture, and continue pulsing until barely combined. The mixture will seem a bit damp and clumpy.
5. Scatter the dough with the bacon crumbles and pulse 5-6 times to distribute evenly.
6. Turn dough out onto a floured board or counter top. Pat into a circle about 7” across and about ½” – ¾” thick. Using a knife or a bench scraper, cut the circle into 8 wedges. Place the wedges on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
7. Using a pastry brush or small spoon, and the last of the cream in the measuring cup, brush the top of each wedge with cream, and scatter with 1 tablespoon of granulated maple sugar.
8. Bake 20-22 minutes, or until golden. Remove from oven and cool on a rack for 10 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Starters: Roasted Beets with Blue Cheese, Hazelnuts, and Sour Cream Dressing

Poor beets. They are much maligned, that despised vegetable of childhood. So much abuse leveled at them: they’re old people food, they taste like dirt, they’re spongy, they’re just boring.

I won’t defend canned beets. In my opinion canned beets deserve the criticism they receive. But fresh beets are quite different. It’s like in high school when you meet your archenemy’s older sibling and discover that, while your archenemy is a jerk, his or her sibling is actually a nice person and you get along really well with them. It makes you wonder if they have the same parents, or if one of them was adopted.

I spent years avoiding beets. I breezed past them on salad bars without a second look. They were those jerky canned beets. No way. Then one evening, at a very nice restaurant, I met cubed roasted golden beets. They were actually a garnish on something or other, and I decided to try them.

I have a theory about food. If there’s something I think I don’t like, or haven’t had an opportunity to taste (let’s be honest: often people say, “I don’t like X,” when what they mean is, “I’ve never had X,” or, “I had X that someone made at a party once and it tasted bad,” or, “I’m not sure how to prepare X, so I never have”), I make a point of trying it at a really good restaurant. My thinking is that if a good restaurant can’t make a disliked or feared ingredient taste good, we’re probably just not meant to be. This method has served me well. I ate cream of mushroom soup and developed an appreciation for mushrooms, and tried oysters on the half shell and came to see how good they can be, among other things.

So here I was, in a quite nice restaurant, with roasted cubed yellow beets before me. They were a world away from those nasty canned beets of my childhood (which were served, I recall, with instant mashed potatoes, and a hamburger patty with American cheese on it—no bun, just a patty with cheese. All of which could possibly—although not completely—account for my aversion to beets). So I tasted these and was immediately smitten.

I started experimenting with fresh beets, and found a new friend. I like them roasted with just a little olive oil, and then cubed, and possibly sautéed in a touch more oil, seasoned with salt and pepper.

But one day, I started musing. This is something else I do. I muse. An ingredient will pop into my head—beets, polenta, halibut—and I’ll start turning over things to do with it. I’ll start running through other ingredients that might go with the one. It’s almost like a slot machine—the potential pairing ingredients will roll past (not quite as quickly as a slot machine, of course) and then all of a sudden, it’ll be a *chunk*chunk*chunk* and a combination will present itself. Sometimes I’ll keep one and discard the other two and start the process over. Sometimes all three or four will strike me as a winner. Then I start experimenting.

This is how this beet concoction came to be. I suppose it’s technically a salad. Something in my head said, “Roasted beets. Blue cheese. Hazelnuts. Sour cream. Dijon mustard. White wine vinegar.” So I tried it. I roasted and cubed the beets, combined sour cream, Dijon mustard and white wine vinegar, scattered the cubed beets with the cheese and the nuts, drizzled over the dressing, and was completely won over.

I took this to work for lunch and heated up the beets in the microwave (not ideal, but cooking facilities at my office are somewhat limited, obviously). I made it at home and reheated the beets in a pan on the stove with the merest splash of olive oil to keep them from sticking to the pan, and they were a delight.

I think one of the reasons people think beets taste like dirt is that they sometimes do. My grocery store sells only organically grown beets. More often than not, they’re caked in mud (and can someone please explain to me why America equates, “organic” with, “filthy”? It seems to me that all organic produce I encounter in grocery stores is encrusted with vast quantities of dirt. I don’t get this.) As a result, if you don’t scrub beets really well—and I mean really well—they will taste like dirt, because they’ll be lightly dusted with soil. To use a term coined by one of my six year olds, roasted soil is undelicious. Ew.

So scrub your beets really well. You can use any color beet you like—plain old magenta ones, golden ones, or the striped ones called Chioggia. The blue cheese I use is a moderately priced “Amish” blue cheese. This is strange, since I live thousands of miles from the nearest Amish person, but even if they’re imposters, they make decent blue cheese. You want a firm blue cheese that crumbles—Maytag blue is the texture you’re looking for, and it’s available most places. The hazelnuts are just hazelnuts. Buy them in the bulk section already skinned and chopped, and save yourself the chore of roasting, skinning, and chopping them.

As for the dressing, thin the sour cream to a drizzling consistency with white wine vinegar. You don’t want it too bitey, just enough to mellow the sour cream so it’s not too rich. The Dijon adds an extra dimension of flavor. If you’re serving this to guests, you can make everything up ahead of time—beets, dressing, cheese and nuts—but keep them separate until you serve. If you use regular beets (as opposed to golden beets), the dressing will turn pink, which is fine if you’re scraping up the last of it with your fork, but not so nice if the plate is just being set down in front of you.

I’m providing quantities, but you can also use your appetite, guests, menu, and palate as a guide. If you’re having this as a starter before a heavy winter meal, you might want to go lighter on the cheese and nuts, so everyone doesn’t fill up. If you’re using this in a transitional menu (a winter/spring one in which you’re serving something a little more delicate than a big stew or a braise, for instance) you could be a little more generous with the toppings to make sure no one goes home hungry. The same goes for the dressing—taste and see what you think. Too tart? More sour cream. Not assertive enough? A little more vinegar and perhaps another teaspoon of Dijon.

If your only experience with beets has been with canned ones, be assured that when you taste fresh beets, there will be hardly any resemblance. You’ll wonder if they even have the same parents as those jerky canned ones.

Roasted Beets with Blue Cheese, Hazelnuts and Sour Cream Dressing
Serves 4-6 as a starter

4 medium beets (about 1 pound, greens removed)
Olive oil
2 ounces crumbly blue cheese, crumbled
¼ cup chopped hazelnuts
Baby arugula or baby spinach for serving (optional)

4 tablespoons sour cream
2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
2-3 teaspoons white wine vinegar

1) Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Scrub beets very well with a brush, and dry with a towel.

2) In a small pan (you can even use an ovenproof skillet) pour a little olive oil. Add the beets, and roll them around to coat with the oil. Pour over a little more oil, if necessary to coat completely.

3) Cover the pan with aluminum foil and roast for 30 minutes to an hour, depending on the size of your beets. (A note about beet size and roasting times, the variation of the former of which will greatly influence the latter: My beets, generally, are about the size of an average woman’s fist. Four beets of this size is about a pound. However, you may sometimes find ones that are smaller. In this case, you’ll want to roast them a shorter time. A good rule of thumb is that you should be able to stick a fork into them, but it should resist a little. If it just slides in the way it would into a baked potato, they’re overdone. Start checking big ones at 30 minutes, smaller ones at 15).

4) Allow the beets to cool until they can just be handled, then rub the skin off with a piece of paper towel. If you let them cool too far, and the skins resist rubbing off, just get out your vegetable peeler and peel them. Beets have skin like carrots—very thin and easily scraped

5) Cut off the root and top ends of the beets and cut into ¼-1/2” cubes. Set aside

6) For the dressing, in a small bowl, combine the sour cream and Dijon mustard. Stir to combine. Add in the white wine vinegar, a little salt and a little pepper. Taste and adjust seasoning. Set aside.

7) If you decide to do the beets well ahead, you’ll need to reheat them. To do this, heat a teaspoon or so of olive oil in a medium skillet, and add the beets. Allow the beets to just heat through, tossing from time to time to keep them from sticking.

8) To serve, you can put down a small bed of baby arugula or baby spinach, if desired. On each plate, mound up some beets, and season lightly with a little salt and pepper (just a pinch of each per plate). Scatter with blue cheese and hazelnuts, and drizzle with a tablespoon or so of dressing.

9) Serve immediately.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Luncheon Dishes: Mushroom & Tallegio Tart

I have to say this. I've been holding it back for years. Only a few of those closest to me know this, but I feel now that I have to make this more widely known.

I hate quiche.

"Oh no," some will say, "'Hate' is such a strong word." OK, Mom, you're right, it is. How about, "I loathe quiche"? I do. I loathe quiche.

Quiche lovers (or, as we quiche loathers refer to them, "the unwashed masses") will claim I've not had a good one. I have eaten quiches in people's homes, in restaurants, and made them myself, and I have yet to come across one that I would friend on Facebook, much less have as a meal. (As an aside, is "quiche" like "sheep"? Are the singular and the plural the same word? Or is "quiches" a word? I am too indifferent to look it up, so I will just use whichever suits me at the time. If you see me use "quiche" as the plural, you'll know I was too lazy to execute the additional keystroke.)

I've had quiche that were no thicker than the average IHOP pancake, and ones that were 4+ inches deep (true story). Every single one was completely, and in all ways, feh. I think this whole response to milk and eggs cooked together actually dates back to my early childhood. When I first was able to eat solids, my mother lovingly made me a custard of the finest ingredients, carefully coddled, and served with the deepest maternal pride. (This is my mother's version of the story, as you may gather.) She popped a spoonful into my precious little mouth, whereupon I turned my head to one side, and ever so delicately pushed it right back out with my tongue and refused to take so much as one more bite. When you consider knowledge of this event--an event that took place long before my conscious memory could have recorded it--you will deduce that my mother told the story many, many times over the years. (MANY times.)

So it is, perhaps, not suprising that quiche is not on my list of Dishes to Serve at My Last Meal on Earth. Nor even on my List of Things I Like to Eat Very Much. Every quiche I've ever had has been an unfortunate combination of bland and soggy. It's just not possible to put milk and eggs into a pie crust and not have the crust get sodden. And no matter how much bacon and cheese you put in, milk and eggs are just never going to be that flavorful. I am a firm believer that there is almost nothing on this earth that can't be improved with the addition of some combination of bacon, cheese, heavy cream and/or Dijon mustard. But quiche, in my opinion, is beyond redemption, even by those most holy of ingredients.

Poor quiche. What did it ever do to me to excite such venom in my being? And so, because I feel in my deepest heart a bit guilty over my unqualified aversion to a foodstuff that never really caused me any harm, I offer an alternative to it.

If you've never had mushrooms with Taleggio cheese, I'm quite envious of you, because you're in for an amazing discovery. It is, in my opinion, one of the classic pairings, like mozzarella and tomatoes. Because the crust of this tart includes some cornmeal, it's sturdier than a regular pie crust. And since the filling is held together by just a suggestion of creme fraiche and an egg yolk, it doesn't turn the crust to mush.

The filling can be varried according to your taste and the tastes of your guests. If you're serving vegetarians, you can leave out the proscuitto and increase the red onion and mushrooms. If you don't have (or don't like) red onion, you can substitute something else--scallion, perhaps, or shallot.

And, in the cliched words of every cookbook author that ever wrote, this tart, along with a green salad, makes a nice lunch or light dinner.

Mushroom & Taleggio Tart
serves 6-8
1 ½ cups all purpose flour
½ cup cornmeal
11 tablespoons butter, chilled
3-6 tablespoons ice water
1 egg yolk
¼ teaspoon salt

¼ cup crème fraiche
2 egg yolks
1 ½ ounces prosciutto, chopped fine
½ pound mushrooms, washed and sliced
2 tablespoons butter
½ red onion, diced
2 tablespoons olive oil
¾ pound of Taleggio cheese, rind removed, sliced thin


1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Lightly coat a 9” tart pan with a removable bottom with cooking spray and set aside.

2. In a food processor, combine the flours and salt and pulse a couple of times to combine. Add the butter, cut into small pieces, and pulse 10-12 times until butter the butter is in pieces the size of a pea.

3. With the motor running, add the egg yolk and ice water until the dough pulls together. Start with 3 tablespoons and add more tablespoon by tablespoon as needed. Do not overprocess.

4. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and roll out to a 12” circle. Roll the dough up on the rolling pin and unroll it over the tart pan. Press the dough down into the pan and up the sides. Roll the rolling pin over the top of the pan to cut off the edges. Using a fork, prick the dough all over. Line the pan with foil or parchment paper and fill with pie weights or dried beans.

5. Bake the crust for 15 minutes, then remove from the oven, take out the pie weights. Return crust to the oven for another 10 minutes. The crust is done when it’s lightly brown. Remove and allow to cool for 10-15 minutes.

6. Make the filling. Combine the crème fraiche and egg yolks in a small bowl. Set aside.

7. Over medium heat, melt the butter until foaming, then add the mushrooms. Sautee until the mushrooms release their liquid and it evaporates, and the mushrooms are starting to get golden brown, about 10 minutes. Turn the mushrooms into a bowl, and return the pan to the heat.

8. Add the olive oil and sauté the red onion until soft, about 5 minutes. Turn the onion into the bowl with the mushrooms. Return the pan to the heat and add the prosciutto. Sautee until crisped, about 4 minutes. Stir into the mushroom and onion mixture.

9. Reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees.

10. Once the crust has cooled slightly, spoon the filling into the crust, making sure to distribute it evenly around the crust. Pour the egg yolk mixture over the top, distributing it evenly (use a spoon to push it around—you may need to push the filling along with it, but you can smooth the filling back into place; there should be a thin coating of the egg yolk mixture all over the tart).

11. Top the tart with the cheese, placing slices close to, but not touching, each other. They’ll spread out as they cook.

12. Bake for 22-27 minutes until the filling is set. The cheese will puff slightly and may turn golden in spots. Allow to cool for 5-10 minutes for the filling to set up. Slice tart into 6 or 8 wedges and serve warm.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Basics: Two Ingredient Bread

A little over 15 years ago, my mother in law died very suddenly. This was, as you can imagine, hard on everyone, but it was particularly hard on my father in law, and for reasons beyond the obvious lonely/sad that comes with the loss of someone who’s been part of your life for most of your adulthood. My mother in law, as is the case for so many men of his generation, was his conduit to the world. She arranged his social life, sent out the Christmas cards, and was the primary point of contact for their kids.

She was the one who called us, extended invitations for holidays, organized family gatherings when we were visiting. She knew what was going on in our lives and what we were planning—buying and selling houses, changing jobs, etc. With her gone, my father in law really didn’t know how to connect with us.

As he struggled to forge a different kind of relationship with Alex and me, he sought a common interest among the three of us, and settled on food. The problem is, my father in law is a really bad cook. Alex describes his “signature dish” from their childhood, which evidently consisted of a can of corned beef hash mixed with ketchup and a few other components (after the canned hash and the ketchup, I’m always too nauseous to absorb the rest of the ingredient list, so I can’t tell you what’s in it beyond that, but really, does it matter? Ick). This food (I use the term loosely) was known as “Special Dish” and was evidently the pinnacle of my father in law’s culinary abilities.

So our conversations about food were primarily limited to his descriptions of what was currently in his refrigerator, along with what kind of soup he’d recently made or was planning to make. With my mother in law gone, he became an almost fanatical consumer of soup, it seemed. Any and every ingredient was fair game. I remember his coming for Fourth of July one year and Alex made, as he did every year, a big pot of dirty rice to take to an annual party. At the end of the party, there was still quite a lot left, and my father in law lamented that he couldn’t take it home and make soup out of it.

On a related note, he was also notoriously bad about throwing things out that were past their prime. During one visit, my sister in law and I decided that we couldn’t bear the fug of the refrigerator any longer, and launched a campaign to clean it out. He agreed, but insisted on overseeing the operation. Things went fairly well until we came to a little Styrofoam bowl of mashed potatoes. As we pulled them out, he kept insisting that those were “perfectly good” and that they were “just from when Shirley was here!” (Shirley being my husband’s aunt, and her visit had happened a good six weeks earlier. "That's just from when Shirley was here!" has become a catchphrase in our family, used when disposing of leftovers or containers of ingredients that are past their prime.) My sister in law made the mistake of opening them and actually taking a whiff, causing her to lunge for the sink, unsure if she was going to be sick, and to immediately dump the offending potatoes down the drain. She said later she had no idea why she’d bothered to smell them, as the green fuzz growing all over them left not a shadow of a doubt as to their fate. Doubtless they would have found their way into a pot of soup if we hadn’t intervened.

All of this is a very roundabout way of getting to the recipe I have for you. Not unlike my earlier ramblings on Christmas cookies, these stories and this recipe have only the most tenuous of connections. The recipe is for the world’s simplest bread. It’s two ingredients, and both of them are cheap and easy to come by. If you can turn on the oven and stir, you can make this bread. It’s great hot from the oven, but also makes good toast if you have it left the next day. I urge you to use the cheapest beer you have for this. Anything with any real distinctive flavor is going to make the beer taste in the bread too strong. When I was in college, we went to the grocery store and happened on generic beer. It came in white cans and had the word “BEER” written in black letters on it. If you can find this, it would be perfect. Budweiser or PBR is fine too. The flour must be self-rising. Regular all-purpose won’t do the trick. You should be able to find self-rising flour along with all the other flours in the grocery store. And don’t bother adding salt either. Self-rising flour has salt already in it, along with the leavening it contains.

I love this bread because it means we can have hot bread with dinner on a cold night with very little effort. You can leave it plain, or you can jazz it up with a couple of handfuls of shredded cheddar cheese, or some chopped herbs, depending on what you’re having with it (of course, then it’s no longer two ingredient bread). It’s nice with chili, stew, or even soup, if that’s what you happen to be having. Too bad I never thought to give my father in law this recipe when he was in his soup phase all those years ago.

Two Ingredient Bread
Makes 1 loaf

2 ½ cups self-rising flour
1 can (12 oz) cheap beer

1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Grease a loaf pan (mine is about 8 ½” x 4 ½”—you can use any size you like, even two smaller ones, but if you use one substantially larger, your loaf will be wider and shorter as the batter spreads to fill the pan).
2. In a large bowl, combine the flour with the beer. Turn the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top.
3. Bake about 40-50 minutes. The loaf will sound hollow when you knock on the bottom, but really, if your oven is reasonably accurate, after about 45 minutes, this bread will be done. It’s such a cinchy thing to make that I don’t want to stress you out by even worrying about knocking the bottom of loaves, or checking it with skewers or thermometers.
4. Allow to sit for about ten minutes, then slice and serve.