Sunday, August 28, 2011

Quick Cucumber Onion Pickles

I was always a dill girl. Kosher, preferably. Whole. I scoffed at bread-and-butters, those thinly sliced, unnaturally sweet, pathetic excuses for pickles.

But one day, I found myself with an over-abundance of cucumbers. As per usual, I consulted Deborah Madison to ask her what to do, and this recipe from Local Flavors intrigued me. The sugar in the recipe caused me a moment of consternation, but since she has yet to lead me astray, I decided to go with it.

I sliced up the cucumbers, stirred together the sugar and vinegar, added peppercorns, olive oil and herb sprigs, and combined everything in a mason jar.

And that was when I learned that I didn't have to pledge my loyalty to just one pickle. I can love all sorts of pickles; even, yes, okra pickles. I can be pickle-poly.

I hope you'll love these pickles as much as I do. They make a sublime addition to a sandwich or burger, but they are also lovely as an hors d'oeuvre with crackers and cheese. I'd wager they would be nice in this potato salad, too.

I found that the olive oil congeals in the fridge, so I left it out. But an à la minute drizzle of olive oil over the pickles would be welcome. Do feel free to double the recipe, as I have - these pickles go fast, especially among pickle fiends.

Eat your cucurbitaceae:
Chève-Stuffed Squash Blossoms
Zucchini Pesto Lasagna
Zucchini Tomato Tart

One Year Ago:
Banana Rum Upside-Down Cakelets

Quick Cucumber Onion Pickles

Adapted from Local Flavors

Makes about 3 cups

These pickles are at their best between the first 1 - 24 hours of marinating. They will lose their bright color after a few days, but will still taste great up to a few weeks later. The original recipe called for a few tablespoons of olive oil, but the oil congeals in the fridge, so I've left it out. The oil rounds out the flavors nicely, though, so a drizzle is welcome when you're ready to eat them. Use any variety of cucumber here, such as lemon, Japanese, Armenian, English, or a combination.

2/3 cup white wine vinegar
1/3 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 red onion
3 cups cucumbers, thinly sliced (peeled if the skins are tough)
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
a few sprigs of tarragon

Combine the vinegar, sugar and salt in a measuring cup. Give it a stir every now and then while you prepare the vegetables to dissolve the sugar.

Peel and quarter the onion, then slice it thinly. Toss the onion in a large bowl with the cucumbers and peppercorns. Pack the vegetables and tarragon sprigs into a quart-sized glass jar and pour the vinegar mixture over them, pressing down on the vegetables until the vinegar rises above them. (It may not seem like enough liquid at first, but as the vegetables break down from the acidity of the vinegar, they will compact more.)

Chill for at least an hour, or up to a few weeks.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Berry-Peach Oven Pancake

My dad used to say that my mom had two speeds: slow and stop.

When it comes to velocity, I seem to take after my mother. Sometimes I think I'd be better off in a buddhist monastery, far away from things like freeways, busy people, and food industry jobs; someplace where mindful attention to detail is rewarded rather than vibed.

In pastry school, when all my fellow students had gathered around the table with their daily baked goods on display, I would often still be hovering around the oven, waiting for my pie or cake to finish baking. One evening, my teacher Claire accused me of doing this on purpose, to milk the drama of pulling my creation from the oven while the rest of the class watched.

I wish that had been the case.

In reality, I'm just very slow.

And yet I do appreciate the drama of pulling certain things from the oven, whether or not it happens in a timely manner (and preferably not while 14 pairs of impatient eyes watch). This baked pancake, for instance, rises particularly high from the heat of the oven, turning a burnished golden all over, puffing dramatically, oozing with a patchwork of color from summer fruit: indigo, raspberry, and peach.

And it's so tasty, too. The vanilla and lemon-laced batter makes a pleasing foil for the jammy fruit. Wedges of the pancake need nothing more than a drizzle of maple syrup, and a scattering of more fresh berries.

As Deborah Madison demonstrates in her books Local Flavors and Seasonal Fruit Desserts, this batter is infinitely versatile. She includes recipes for three versions of the same baked pancake: savory, with chanterelles and cheese, sweet with pears and cardamom, and somewhere in between, with apples, cinnamon, whiskey and cheddar.

My cousin makes the Pear Cardamom version of this pancake regularly, varying the spice and fruit, sometimes folding in cooked quinoa to make it more substantial. One night after she gave me a soap-making demonstration - did I mention she is insanely crafty? - we made one with apples, cinnamon, and sage-infused cheddar which she had brought back from a trip to Vermont. We topped the whole thing with Vermont maple syrup.

[Here is where the appropriate photo of the berry-peach pancake in full puff would be, had I not received an important phone call the minute I pulled the pancake from the oven, and returned minutes later to find it already fallen.]

For a similar photo, check out the original recipe.

Or, better yet, make this pancake yourself. It takes about 10 minutes to get it in the pan, and 25 to bake, and in no time you have yourself a fabulous breakfast.

Of course, if you're slow like me, it may take a bit longer.

Puffed Daddies:
Pear Cardamom Oven Pancake
Apricot Cherry Clafoutis
Chèvre and Chive Souffles

One year ago:
Crispy Sesame Kale Chips

Berry-Peach Oven Pancake

Serves 4

Adapted from this Pear Cardamom Oven Pancake, which was adapted from Local Flavors, by Deborah Madison

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup whole spelt (or wheat) flour
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 eggs
zest of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup whole milk
1 large peach, in 1/4" slices
1/2 cup raspberries
1/2 cup blueberries
maple syrup and additional fresh berries, for serving

Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 400º. Place the butter in a 10" oven proof skillet, and set in the oven to melt while you prepare the batter.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flours, sugar and salt. Whisk the eggs into the flour mixture until smooth, then the lemon zest and vanilla. Add the milk a little at a time, whisking as you go, until you have a smooth, crepe-like batter.

Remove the skillet from the oven, brush the melted butter up the sides of the pan, then pour the excess butter into the batter and whisk to combine.

Quickly scatter the peach slices and berries in the bottom of the skillet, then pour the batter over the fruit, and place the skillet in the oven. Bake the pancake until dramatically puffed and golden, about 25 minutes. Let settle for a few minutes, then slice into wedges. Serve with maple syrup and some extra berries.

Leftovers reheat beautifully in a 350º oven or toaster oven for 5 or 10 minutes.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Zucchini, Corn and Chèvre-Stuffed Squash Blossoms

While interning with my pastry teacher, Claire Legas, at Cafe Cacao in Berkeley, I learned just how tedious pastry making can be. Thankfully, I didn't have to learn this firsthand. Claire had worked as a pastry cook at the French Laundry, and would regale me with stories of severe boredom, such as the time she had to peel hundreds of cherry tomatoes. Too delicate to blanch, they had to be peeled slowly, one by one, while standing in the walk-in refrigerator. They were used as a garnish on a cherry tomato panna cotta. (Heaven forbid the guests would have to actually masticate their own food, Claire said, rolling her eyes.)

I hoped that in my career as a baker I would never have to experience such tedium as peeling hundreds of cherry tomatoes.

A few months later, I got a job at a fancy SF restaurant that I like to call Pome (names have been changed to protect the not-so-innocent). In the early fall, we featured a concord grape sorbet, served with lace cookies, champagne gelées, and garnished with concord grapes. Peeled concord grapes.

You can guess who the grape peeler was that day.

After the grape incident, I swore I would never willingly participate in (or force others to participate in) such a painstaking process.

But the other day I found squash blossoms at Rainbow. Inspired by some fresh shallots, with their greens still attached, I decided to stuff the blossoms with goat cheese, sauteed shallot, zucchini and sweet corn. While most squash blossoms end up deep fried, I consulted Jerry Traunfeld's Herbfarm Cookbook for a method in which the blossoms are blanched and shocked, then stuffed, brushed with olive oil, and baked. The process preserves their bright colors and leaves you with a light and delicate dish. I would serve the blossoms with arugula and warmed cherry tomatoes. I couldn't wait.

Unfortunately, wait I did. Once the blossoms had been shaken out, one by one, then blanched and plunged into an ice water bath, the stubborn things were nearly impossible to open without tearing. Thankfully, even the ones that ripped stuck together once stuffed, and the rest of the process was cake; a brushing of olive oil, a quick baking, and the blossoms were ready to be arranged on their arugula beds and doused with shiny (still skin-clad) cherry tomatoes. I stuffed half of the blossoms this way, and they made quite a fancy presentation (though naturally not French Laundry-worthy as they had to be chewed).

Other ways I imagine serving squash blossoms are:

Since I couldn't face stuffing the other half of the blossoms, I thought, 'Sod it,' (ok, 'sod' wasn't the word I actually thought), 'I'll just toss the rest together with some spaghetti.' This made a delicious, if slightly less pretty, meal. Both variations tasted excellent, and I've included the pasta version below, for those adverse to tedium.

Summer (squash) lovin':
Zucchini Tomato Tart
Zucchini Pesto Lasagna
Zucchini Corn Enchiladas

One year ago:
Chocolate Rosemary Pots de Crème

Squash Blossoms Stuffed with Zucchini, Sweet Corn, and chèvre

Serves 4 - 6 as a first course

Jerry Traunfeld goes into extensive detail on the harvesting and preparing of squash blossoms in his book. Suffice it to say that these blossoms are somewhat ephemeral and should be harvested in the morning and prepared soon thereafter, within the same day. Check the insides for bugs before blanching the flowers. Male blossoms grow directly from the stalks and have a stamen inside the flower, which should be removed before stuffing the blossoms. Females bear fruit; if your blossoms have tiny zucchini attached to them, you can leave them on and have a baby squash with your blossom. Be patient when working the flowers, and leave time to pry open and stuff them gently. (That sounded kinda dirty, didn't it?) Figure 3-4 blossoms per person for an appetizer.

For the blossoms:
1 tablespoon olive oil, plus more for brushing the blossoms
1 large fresh or cured shallot or spring onion, diced
2 medium zucchini, diced
1/4 teaspoon salt
kernels from 1 ear of corn
4 ounces fresh chèvre (goat cheese)
3 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
16 - 18 squash blossoms, free of bugs, stamen snapped off of males (see headnote)

For serving:
1 tablespoon olive oil, plus more for the arugula
1/2 pint cherry tomatoes, halved
salt and pepper

1-2 cups baby arugula
lemon juice

Make the filling:
Heat the oil in a wide skillet over a medium flame. When the oil shimmers, add the shallot. Cook for about 10 minutes, until translucent and tender. Add the zucchini and salt, and cook, stirring occasionally, until tender, 5 minutes. Add the corn and cook for 1 minute longer. In a medium bowl, stir together the cooked veggies with the chèvre and basil. Set aside.

Prepare the blossoms:
Bring a large saucepan of salted water to a boil. Prepare a medium bowl full of ice water. Drop the blossoms into the boiling water a few at a time and cook for 10 seconds. Lift them out and drop them into the ice water.

Preheat the oven to 350º. Brush a baking sheet with olive oil.

With the blossoms still submerged (the petals are easier to separate under water), carefully open up one of the blossoms and drape the petals over your hand, then lift it out of the water, tilting it to drain. Place 1 tablespoon of the chèvre mixture inside the blossom, then close the petals around it, and place it on the baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining blossoms. (The blossoms can be covered and refrigerated for up to 8 hours at this point.)

Brush the blossoms with a bit of olive oil and sprinkle with a few pinches of salt. Bake in the oven for 5-7 minutes, until heated through.

Meanwhile, warm 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add the cherry tomatoes and cook, tossing, until warm and beginning to release some of their juices, a few minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Toss the arugula in a medium bowl with a drizzle of olive oil, a squeeze of lemon juice, and salt and pepper.

When the blossoms are hot, divide the arugula among 4 - 6 plates. Top with 3-4 blossoms, then spoon the warm cherry tomatoes over the blossoms. Serve with a knife and fork.

Variation: Spaghetti with Chèvre, Zucchini, Corn and Squash Blossoms 

Makes 4 entree-sized servings

Prepare the blossoms, chèvre mixture and tomatoes as above (you can probably use the blossoms un-blanched). Sliver the blossoms. Toss the chèvre mixture with 12 ounces of cooked spaghetti and a little extra olive oil, then gently toss in the tomatoes and squash blossoms. Plate and top with a good grating of parmesan and black pepper.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Cherry Frangipane Tart

At Tante Marie's Cooking School we didn't have a textbook. Instead, our teacher, Claire, brought daily handouts, and we were required to purchase a thick cookbook by a well-known baker, who, for the purpose of this post, we'll call Steve.

As with most cookbooks, I pored over Steve's tome, admiring the photos, bookmarking recipes, and enjoying Steve's writing. In the back of the book was a photograph of Steve. He gazed at the camera, laughing, handsome and affable-looking, like a jolly uncle who would shower you with gifts and culinary knowledge. I imagined him having a rich, deep voice and hearty laugh. He seemed like the sort of chef who would take you by the hand and, with the utmost patience, show you how to become a great baker.

When Claire informed us that Steve would be coming to give a day-long baking demonstration, I could barely contain my excitement. The savory class would be in attendance, as would the formidable owner of the school, Tante Marie herself.

I had Wolfgang Puck-esque fantasies about Steve: that we would get on like old chums, that he would hire me to test recipes for his latest book, and take me traveling to foreign countries in search of the perfect croissant or truffle.

The day of the demonstration, I walked into Tante Marie's full of hope and anticipation. I looked around, but where was Steve? Instead of the kindly man smiling comfortably in the photograph, there stood a different man entirely.

I saw him from the side. His back was hunched under his chef's coat as he nasally berated his assistant, a fellow student from the savory class. As he turned his sour expression toward me, I saw a fleeting semblance to the man in the book. My heart fell with disappointment.

We settled into our seats, and Steve began his demonstration. As he put together some calzone, he informed us testily that there wouldn't be enough to go around, as his assistant (and here he scowled at her again) hadn't purchased enough spinach. "You just can't get good help these days," he whined, rolling his eyes at us as though for sympathy.

The demonstration continued, his assistant looking more and more downtrodden, and those of us watching growing quieter with discomfort. He made a quick focaccia (which he boasted would brown nicely on the bottom when baked on the lowest rack, and when it didn’t, blamed the oven) before moving on to a sweet tart.

As he rolled out the dough, he asked the class if we knew why one didn’t need to be as gentle when rolling out pate sucrée as pie dough.

There was a collective fidgeting as the class remained silent. Claire shot us an insistent look; we had just covered this topic in class, and our apparent bewilderment made her look like she hadn’t done her job.

While the rest of us intently studied our own hands, one classmate stoutly raised hers and declared confidently, ‘The sugar.’

Steve mocked nastily, “The sugar! That’s like saying, ‘the butler did it.’”

The class again fell silent. Claire glanced around menacingly.

I cleared my throat and posited, “Because sugar is acidic?”

Steve sneered, “If sugar were acidic, then everyone would make sugar meringue pie.”

Claire put her head in her hands.

Finally some brave soul got it right. “The acids in the sugar tenderize the glutens in the flour.”

Steve paused, trying to think of a witty retort, but couldn’t, so he went back to making his tart.

Steve's pate sucrée left a bad taste in my mouth, and I have yet to find a recipe that I can really get behind, though I've made many sweet tart doughs, both at home and professionally. Most invoke the creaming method, in which butter and sugar get creamed together, while a few utilize the biscuit method, in which cold butter is rubbed into the dry ingredients. Some use powdered sugar, while others use granulated. Some call for whole eggs, some for egg yolks, some for milk, cream or water, and some for blanched, ground almonds.

In my pate sucrée meanderings, my favorite thus far has been a press-in crust, adapted from Williams-Sonoma's Essentials of Baking, which, much to Steve's dismay I'm sure, doesn’t require rolling out. For my first attempt at this cherry frangipane tart, however, I decided to try a most unconventional recipe from Alice Medrich's Pure Desserts.

The butter here is melted (!), and simply stirred into the flour, sugar and salt, then the lump of buttery dough pressed into the pan. The instructions call for neither chilling the dough, nor lining it with pie weights to blind bake it.

The dough felt wet and greasy, and even before baking, wanted to slip down the sides of the pan. I decided to chill the crust while the oven preheated, but, giving Ms. Medrich, who tests her recipes rigorously, the benefit of the doubt, baked the shell sans weights.

As I'd feared, the sides of the shell slumped down as the crust baked. Lacking the time to bake a second shell (as I wanted to get this tart made, and posted, before I waltzed away to music camp and cherry season ended entirely, which, um, didn't exactly happen), I managed to push the still-warm sides back up the pan.

I soldiered ahead, spreading the crust with brandied frangipane and the giant-est organic cherries I've ever seen, and baking the tart until the top browned and the cherries oozed and burbled.

Unfortunately, the edges of the crust where I'd pressed them up came out a shade short of burnt. Fortunately, the crust tasted delicious: tender, just sweet enough, and the essence of simplicity. All that butter kept the tart crust crisp well into music camp, and we devoured slices under the redwoods as the ravens cackled and squawked to the distant doumbeks, bagpipes and marimbas.

I was fairly certain that freezing the crust and securing it with pie weights to blind bake it would do the trick, so I purchased more cherries for a second trial. But when I tried to lift the parchment out of the pan, half of the partially-baked shell came out with it. Alice, I don’t know how you got the tart shells in your book to look so picture perfect, but I would appreciate if you would come over sometime and show me. (Hopefully, you’re a nicer baker than certain people I know.)

In the end, I went back to the press-in crust from this blood orange tart, which requires a quick freeze and no weights, and stays resolutely in place. I found this crust to be more tender, and a bit more austere, a welcome contrast to the rich, sweet filling here.

some bossy bakers, I don't like to tell people what to do. But I would highly recommend giving this tart a whirl, should you find yourself with some late-season cherries, a handful of almonds and a stick of butter. If you’ve missed cherry season, try this with sliced plums, peaches or apricots, or poached pears in the fall.

Whichever variation you choose, rest assured that the crust will turn out delicate and tender...

...regardless of the reason.

Life is just a bowl of: 
Cherry Marzipan Scones
Sweet Cherry Manhattans 
Apricot Cherry Fold-Over Pie
Apricot Cherry Clafoutis

One year ago:
Zucchini Tomato Tart

Cherry Frangipane Tart

Filling adapted from Deborah Madison's Seasonal Fruit Desserts, crust adapted from Williams-Sonoma Essentials of Baking

Makes one 8 or 9" tart, 8 - 10 servings

Press-in crust:
3/4 cup (4 ounces) all-purpose flour
1/4 cup (1 ounce) powdered sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons cold, unsalted butter, in 1/2" dice

1 pound sweet cherries, pitted (1 1/4 pounds if using a 9" pan)
1 tablespoon brandy

3/4 cup whole, raw almonds
1/3 cup plus 1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt

3 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 egg
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Make the crust:
Sift the flour, sugar and salt into a large bowl (or the bowl of a food processor). Add the cold butter cubes and rub with your fingertips (or process) until no large butter chunks remain and the mixture begins to clump together (no need to wash the food processor - you'll use it to make the filling). Dump the dough crumbles into an 8 or 9" tart pan with a removable bottom and press as evenly as possible up the sides and into the bottom of the pan; there will just be enough for a thin layer of crust. Prick the crust all over with the tines of a fork. Freeze the crust until firm while you preheat the oven, at least 15 minutes.

Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat to 350º. Bake the frozen crust until it is just beginning to turn golden around the edges, about 20 minutes.

While the tart shell bakes, make the filling:
Toss the pitted cherries with the brandy in a non-reactive bowl and let sit, tossing several times, while you make the frangipane.

Meanwhile, place the almonds, 1/3 cup of sugar, flour and salt in the bowl of a food processor and grind very fine. Add the butter, egg and extracts and process until smooth.

Drain the cherry juices through a sieve and into the frangipane, and process to combine. Scrape the frangipane into the par-baked tart shell and spread into a smooth layer. Place the cherries atop the frangipane in concentric circles, beginning with the outer edge, leaving about 1/8" between each cherry. Sprinkle the top of the tart with the remaining teaspoon of sugar.

Bake the tart until the frangipane is puffed, golden, and firm to the touch about 45 minutes, rotating the tart halfway through the baking time.

Let the tart cool for at least 20 minutes. To easily remove the ring, place the tart on a large can and let the ring slip down. Sprinkle with powdered sugar if desired, cut into wedges, and serve warm or at room temperature with a bit of unsweetened whipped cream or crème fraîche. A tipple of good brandy makes a fine accompaniment, as well.