Friday, April 27, 2012

Meyer Lemon Semolina Bars

Though I've loved baking (and sugar!) from an early age, my first attempt at lemon bars did not occur until my college days, during a Santa Cruz-induced "healthy" phase. A friend and I packed a crust made of sunflower seeds and honey into the bottom of a pan, then poured lemon curd made from her parents' home-grown lemons over the top. It was a noble pursuit. But as it baked, bits of the crust floated up to the top, marring the surface. The "bars" baked into a sort of gooey, lemony gum. They got eaten, but without much pleasure.

Since then, I've stuck to a more classic shortbread crust for lemon bars, believing that a small portion of a satisfying dessert beats eating a whole pan of gummy lemon bars any day.

Typical lemon bars contain just sugar, eggs, lemon juice and zest (and sometimes flour) in their usually thin, and sometimes over-baked, layer of topping. These tend to bake up sturdy, sometimes browned on top (often with a thick layer of crust which may or may not be underbaked and bland), and tasting mostly of sugar and egg. Lemon bars like these have the benefit of portability, their topping and bottoms firm enough to stack and wrap.

These lemon bars are a different story. Their ample layer of barely baked buttery curd is creamy and soft, more the texture of a French lemon tart. (In fact, I adapted the recipe to make a blood orange tart last year.) They may not be the best bar to take on a picnic, or to set on a sunny buffet table. But they are the best bars to eat from the fridge on a warm spring day, the crust shattering between your teeth as the curd oozes and melts in your mouth, leaving behind a whisper of floral meyer lemon. They are the bar to serve at a classy cocktail party, or to carefully bring to someone you care about, who will be eating them right away. You may get a bit of soft curd smeared on your fingers when you pick one up, but that just gives you something to look forward to after you've devoured your bar.

The recipe comes from a favorite cookbook, one that I return to again and again: Williams Sonoma's Essentials of Baking. Every recipe in this book has proven top-notch, and these lemon bars are no exception.

I swapped out some AP flour in the crust in exchange for yellow semolina, a flour made from durham wheat and commonly used in pasta-making. The semolina makes the crust even more delicate, crisped and browned from ample butter, with an ever-so-slight crunch (though not the sand-in-your-teeth texture of cornmeal). A curd made from loads of Meyer lemon juice and zest, 3 eggs and 1 yolk (reduced from 3 yolks because I already have too many egg whites laying around and the bars don't need them), just the right amount of sugar, and a generous dose of butter tops the crumbly crust.

Meyers are a hybrid of regular (Eureka) lemons and tangerines. In most cases involving dessert, I find that Meyers kick Eureka's asses (if lemons had asses, that is). Their skin is softer and thinner, their juice abundant, sweeter and more complex, tasting like drops of sunshine and flowers. Their bright golden zest and juice turn the curd a vibrant yellow. Some Californians are fortunate to have trees thriving in their backyards, like my dear friends Terry and Malaika, who generously gift us with a huge bag of the fruits anytime we come to visit. Their tree always seems to be fruiting fervently. Lacking Meyers, WS says you can use Eureka lemon zest and juice in this recipe, though I'd imagine these bars would be more tart.

Though delectable just as they are, these bars could likely take on many variations. Here are a few I can think of:
  • add freshly grated ginger, lavender buds, lemon verbena, lemon balm or vanilla bean to the curd along with the juice
  • pulse 3-4 tablespoons pine nuts or pistachios into the crust
  • use fine cornmeal or millet flour in place of the semolina
  • use bergamot zest in place of the lemon, or swap the juice and zest for pink grapefruit or pomelo
You can even follow the directions for the blood orange tart and bake this in an 8" tart pan. These bars are dainty enough that you can put them on a plate with a scoop of hibiscus-rhubarb sorbet and pistachios, a drizzle of blood orange reduction, or a jumble of fresh berries, for an any-time-of-year dessert. The lemaniacs in your life will love you forever.

Luscious Lemons:
Meyer Lemon Buttermilk Pie
Lemon Mascarpone Tart
(Gluten-Free) Meyer Lemon Almond Cake

Meyer Lemon Semolina Bars

Adapted from The Essentials of Baking

Makes sixteen 2" bars

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

Lemon curd:
6 tablespoons cold, unsalted butter, in 1/2" dice
1 teaspoon finely grated meyer lemon zest (from about 1 lemon)
3/4 cup strained meyer lemon juice (from about 5 lemons)
1 cup sugar
3 eggs
1 egg yolk

powdered sugar, for dusting

Make the crust:
Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat to 350º. Line an 8" square pan with parchment paper on the bottom and up the sides. (Alternately, you can use thick aluminum foil, or an un-lined pan greased with butter.)

Combine the flours, sugar and salt in the bowl of a food processor. Add the butter cubes and pulse until no large butter chunks remain and the mixture begins to clump together into the size of peas. (You can also do this in a large bowl with your fingertips.) Dump the crumbs into the prepared pan and press the dough as evenly as possible into the bottom.

Bake the crust until it is golden all over, about 15-20 minutes.

Make the curd:
Set a mesh sieve over a heatproof bowl or large measuring cup and set aside. Place the diced butter and lemon zest in a small bowl and set aside.

In a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan, whisk together the sugar, eggs and egg yolk to combine. Whisk in the lemon juice. Place the pot over medium-low heat, and cook, stirring constantly with a heatproof rubber spatula, until the mixture thickens slightly and reaches 160-170º on an instant-read thermometer, 5 - 10 minutes. As you stir, be sure to scrape the entire bottom and corners of the pan, so that the mixture heats as evenly as possible.

Immediately strain the mixture through the sieve to stop the cooking. Whisk in the butter pieces and zest until combined. (If you accidentally cook your curd too far and it begins to curdle, and stays curdled after you strain it and add the butter, you can probably rescue it by whizzing it in a blender or with an immersion blender.)

Bake the bars:
Pour the cooked curd over the baked crust. Bake the bars for about 20 minutes until the sides are barely puffed and the center of the bar wobbles like firm jell-o when you give it a gentle shake; it should not be wet or watery-looking (underbaked) nor should it be puffed in the center or cracking (overbaked).

Remove the bars from the oven and let cool for about 20 minutes, then chill until firm, 2-3 hours. Grasp the parchment and lift the bars from the pan and onto a cutting board; peel away the parchment. Trim away the outer edges, then use a large chef's knife to cut into 16 bars, wiping the blade clean between cuts. Just before serving, dust the tops with a bit of powdered sugar.

The bars keep well, refrigerated, for up to 3 days.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Rhubarb Chutney

Today marks the momentous occasion in which we finally made it through the last of the ten pounds of rhubarb that we got from Jay's mom's garden on Easter Sunday. (Pound 9 of it went into an exquisite custard crumble cake from Delicious Days.)

And today, pound 10 became a generous pint of this piquant chutney.

When I came across the recipe in Martha Stewart Living, I wasn't sure what to think. Though it is technically a vegetable, I've only tasted rhubarb in sweet preparations. But when I took my first bite, I learned just how right rhubarb chutney is.

This is less like the chutneys that I'm used to dousing papadums with in Indian restaurants and more like a savory jam to dollop on slices of baguette spread with soft goat cheese. In fact, this chutney reminds me of caponata, the agrodolce (sweet and sour) Italian condiment comprised of eggplant cooked with onion, celery, currants, sugar, tomatoes and vinegar. Caponata has been a favorite late-summer snack since I tried it at a deli in Bologna many years ago, and subsequently learned to make it from a gem of a book called Once Upon a Tart. I'm thrilled to have a caponata stand-in for spring, and made with two of my biggest gastronomical fixations: rhubarb and ginger. I added a third and fourth with sourdough baguette and chèvre. (Now if only I could work chocolate and whiskey in somehow... kidding!)

This chutney contains no vinegar, but gets its tartness from the rhubarb itself and a bit of white wine. Honey, sugar and raisins (we got the loveliest raisins in our CSA box last week - thanks, Eatwell!) add sweetness; onion, garlic and fresh ginger bring savoriness and a bit of heat. Like caponata, the chutney cooks into a chunky jam, and makes an eye-opening dip paired with cheese and whole grain baguette (the one pictured comes from Firebrand bakery in Oakland, via Rainbow).

This chutney would pair nicely with meats as well; think turkey and cranberries or pork with applesauce.

Best of all, you don't need ten pounds of rhubarb to make this chutney. Though if you did, you could make over a gallon of chutney.

In which case, call me!

Rhu the day:
Rhubarb Chèvre Galettes
Rhubarb Buckle
Brown Butter Rhubarb Squares

One year ago:
Apple Rhubarb Pandowdy with
Honey Yogurt Ice Cream
Two years ago:
Panela Rum Buttercrunch Toffee

Rhubarb Chutney

Adapted from Martha Stewart Living

Serve this savory-tart condiment on slices of toasted baguette spread with soft goat cheese, or with meats. It will keep well, refrigerated, for at least a week.

Makes 1 generous pint

1 pound trimmed rhubarb, sliced 1/4" thick (4 cups)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 tablespoon minced or grated fresh ginger (from about 1")
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/2 cup dry white wine, such as Sauvignon Blanc
1/3 cup raisins or currants (or coarsely chopped golden raisins)
1/4 cup sugar
3 tablespoons honey

Heat the oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion, garlic, ginger and salt and cook, stirring occasionally, without letting it brown, until transluscent, about 5 minutes. Off the heat, add the wine and raisins. Return to the heat and bring to a boil; cook for 1 minute. Add the sugar and honey and stir to dissolve.

Stir in half of the rhubarb and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, partially covered, until the rhubarb breaks down, 5-10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the remaining rhubarb, raise the heat and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat again and simmer, partially covered, until the second batch of rhubarb has just begun to soften. (It will continue to soften from residual heat.)

Let the chutney cool to room temperature, uncovered, then taste for balance, adding more salt, honey or a dash of white wine vinegar if needed. Store in a jar in the fridge.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Rhubarb Buckle

In Italy, a buckle can be offensive. If you get into someone's car and fasten your seat belt, you're essentially saying, "You're a crap driver; I don't trust you not to get into an accident." Rather than keeping you safe, as promised in the States, the seatbelt fastening action will merely enrage your driver, causing him (let's face it, this only applies to guys) to drive with even more crazed aggression and flagrant disregard of traffic laws.

(Or so I was told while buckling up in a friend's car in Lecce 10 years ago. Hopefully, things have changed.)

In any case, "buckling up" in your kitchen should neither offend anyone nor put your life in danger. (You may offend a few vegans, but, as Anthony Bourdain put it, "They don't eat enough animal protein to get really angry." So you're probably safe.)

A buckle is a sturdy cake-like batter topped with an extraordinary amount of fruit; as it bakes, the cake "buckles" up through the fruit as the fruit breaks down and sinks into the batter, which sops up its juices. I made Deb's (of Smitten Kitchen) vanilla brown butter peach buckle a couple years ago with much success, and had been wanting to try something similar with rhubarb (which is technically not a fruit, but is baked with as if it were). I took a stab at one last year, but found its cardboardy texture offensive.

When I read through this recipe in the latest issue of Martha Stewart Living while waiting to check out at the co-op, I felt certain that it would be a winner. Being too cheap to buy the whole magazine, I thought I would be sneaky and use Jay's camera phone to snap a photo of the recipe. Jay chided me, "I'm sure that's considered uncool." But I flagrantly disregarded etiquette and clicked away.

However, my sneaky rudeness turned out to be unnecessary as I found the recipe on-line the next day.

After a childhood devoid of rhubarb, I've embraced this "fruit" heartily. My tastebuds have always favored the tart end of the flavor spectrum – vinegar, citrus, cultured dairy – so rhubarb was a shoo-in. I look forward to its bright color and flavor every spring after a bleak winter of roots and pomes. (Ok, California's winters aren't exactly "bleak.") Rhubarb is usually brimming from tubs at the market this time of year, but I have yet to see it for sale.

I was beginning to wonder where all the fresh rhubarb was hiding when we went to visit Jay's folks in Santa Cruz last weekend. And it turns out that all the rhubarb is hiding in Jay's mom's yard. Jay picked about 10 pounds of the red-and-green stalks, some weighing almost a full pound and feeling as fat and hefty as baseball bats. I'm quite thankful to Jay's mom's generosity, green thumb, and backyard that happens to have the perfect micro-climate for rhubarb-growing. I've been in rhubarb heaven for the past week (and, subsequently, Pinterest heaven – check out my pinboard, Rhubarb Love, for further rhubarb "pinspiration"). I've already turned two pounds of rhubarb into a crisp, half a pound into sorbet, and two more pounds into two batches of this delightful buckle.

As the full batch would have made 32 squares of buckle, I halved it, and made a few small tweaks: I upped the rhubarb quantity just a bit, increased the lemon zest, used 1 egg and 1 yolk (in place of what would have been 1 1/2 eggs due to halving the recipe), and subbed yogurt and heavy cream for the sour cream since that's what I had on hand. The streusel seemed dry when I mixed it up, so I added a bit more butter and brown sugar. Slight changes.

As you spread the small amount of batter into the pan, you will think that something is amiss. Ditto for when you add an obscene amount of macerated rhubarb and its copious juices, and seemingly inadequate amount of streusel. But when you cut the first slice, all the components will have magically realigned themselves into perfect proportions, the cake having risen in the oven and the fruit losing much of its volume in the form of steam and cooking into almost a chunky jam. With bit of sturdy cake, an ample layer of rhubarb, and a flutter of crisp streusel, these buckle squares fall somewhere between a coffeecake and a crumb bar. They're easy to eat out of hand at a party or a picnic, durable enough to stack and transport long distances. And they stay delectable for several days.

I know there are rhubarb haters out there, but I'm confidant that this recipe could sway the staunchest opposers. I'm guessing most rhubarb trauma has to do with once eating rhubarb that was either too sweet, too tart, or overcooked and therefore too gloppy. The rhubarb here is thinly sliced and tossed with sugar, where it hangs out while you prepare the batter and streusel. After a long, slow bake, it becomes tender in the heat of the oven while the sturdy batter absorbs the excess liquid, leaving the sliced stalks soft as ripe berries, but still holding their shape. The amount of sugar eliminates that astringent pucker while leaving a pleasant tartness, its delicate, floral notes enhanced by meyer lemon zest and vanilla.

So I encourage you to buckle down and bake a batch of buckle. And if you're a rhubarb hater, buck up: at least you're not buckled into a car being driven by a mad Italian.

Ravenous for Rhubarb:
Rhubarb Crumb Bars
Rhubarb Chèvre Galettes
Rhubarb Streusel Coffeecake

One year ago:
(Vegan) Lentil Walnut Pâté
Two years ago:
Bacon Cheddar Beer Scones

Rhubarb Buckle

Adapted from Martha Stewart Living

Do be sure to cut all signs of leaf from the rhubarb stalk, as they are toxic. (The stalk is perfectly safe.) No need to peel the rhubarb; the macerating and long baking time turn it absolutely tender, and the skin contains the prettiest pigments.

Makes sixteen 2" squares

The fruit:
1 pound trimmed rhubarb, halved if wider than 1 inch, sliced 1/4 inch thick (4 cups)
1/2 cup sugar

The cake:
6 tablespoons butter, softened
1/2 cup sugar
zest of 1 large (meyer) lemon
1 egg
1 egg yolk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup flour
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/4 cup sour cream (or 2 tablespoons each plain yogurt and heavy cream)

The streusel:
1/2 cup flour
3 tablespoons soft light brown sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons butter, melted

Position a rack in the upper third of the oven and preheat to 350º. Grease a 9x9" square pan, then line it with two crossing pieces of parchment paper, leaving a 1" overhang on each side.

In a non-reactive (read: stainless steel, glass or ceramic) bowl, toss the rhubarb with 1/2 cup of the sugar. Let sit while you prepare the batter and streusel, tossing a few more times. The sugar will dissolve, and the rhubarb will release some juices and soften slightly.

Make the cake batter:
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter, sugar and zest on medium speed until light and fluffy, scraping down the sides of the bowl once or twice. Add the yolk, then the egg, and beat to combine. Stir in the vanilla. Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt. With the mixer on low, stir in half of the flour mixture, then all of the sour cream, then the rest of the flour, mixing until just combined after each addition. Remove the bowl and paddle, and give the dough a final mix with a sturdy rubber spatula to make sure it is homogeneous.

Make the streusel:
Stir together the flour, brown sugar and salt in a small bowl. Add the melted butter and mix until moist and clumpy.

Bake the buckle:
Spread the batter into a thin, even layer in the lined pan. Top with the rhubarb and its juices; spread the slices into an even layer. Break the streusel into hazelnut-sized clumps and scatter them evenly over the rhubarb.

Bake the buckle until lightly golden on top, and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 65 to 85 minutes. Let cool completely, then lift the buckle out of the pan using the parchment handles. Remove the parchment, and cut the buckle into 16 squares.

The buckle is best the day it's baked when the streusel is crisp, but it will keep for up to 3 days at room temperature.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Cheddar, Beer and Chive Gougères

You know those people who can walk into a room and suddenly, it's a party?

I'm not one of those people.

If you bumped into me at a party, I would probably look something like this:

Parties do have one bonus, though: they're the perfect excuse to bake things. And gougères are the perfect party food. Essentially a cream puff dough (pate à choux) with loads of gruyere mixed in, they bake up into puffy sighs of cheesy love. Their crackled domes give way to a gooey, airy interior: the resulting love child if a biscuit and a souffle were to get it on.

I wrote about gougères in the very early days of this site; the version I concocted combined mashed winter squash and sage in a gruyere-laden dough. Gougères, like shakshouka, remind me of onomatopoeia in that they kind of taste the way they sound. Take a bite of one warm from the oven, and a crisp crust shatters softly, giving way to a pillowy-soft interior, like a gentle kiss. When you say "gougère," you inadvertently pucker up. French at its best!

Inspiration struck when we received a beautiful bunch of chives in our CSA, and I noted that Heidi, of 101 Cookbooks, uses beer (BEER!) in place of water in her gougère batter.

Any recipe that begins by melting butter and beer together, and ends with mixing in obscene amounts of sharp cheddar cheese, is going to be good, and these gougères did not disappoint. The beer lends toasty depth of flavor to the batter, cheddar and parmesan cheeses give off the most tantalizing aroma as they bake, and ample flecks of green chives trick you into thinking you're eating something healthy.

On that note, I was psyched to see that Heidi also uses some whole wheat flour in her dough; I didn't know you could do that! I used spelt flour, which contributed nutty flavor while leaving the dough as feather-light as usual. I also like that Heidi makes the whole dough in one pot, rather than transferring the flour/butter/beer mixture to a stand mixer before adding the eggs and cheese. It takes a bit more arm strength, but you end up with fewer dishes to wash.

As I was stirring the stiff dough on the stovetop (and trying to ignore the burning sensation in my arm), smelling the lovely, toasty aroma it was emitting, my mind began dancing with ideas for beer-enriched pate à choux, like profiteroles filled with stout ice cream and topped with whiskey chocolate sauce, or beer cream puffs filled with chocolate-whiskey pastry cream. The beer lends the dough a full depth of flavor without tasting at all boozy, and I imagine this would work nicely with sweets as well as savories.

The one caveat to gougères is that they must be eaten when warm from the oven. But thankfully there are many do-ahead options: either chill the dough for up to a day, freeze scoops of dough and then bake them from frozen, or reheat the pre-baked gougères just before serving.

Just don't get jealous if they end up being the life of the party.

Party Flavors:
Crack Sticks (Herby Cheese Straws)
Pumpkin Sage Gougères
Bacon, Beer and Cheddar Scones

One year ago:
Chocolate Mint Chip Ice Cream
Lemon Mascarpone Tart
Pistachio Chocolate Torte
Two years ago:
(Raw, Vegan) Chocolate Pudding
Rhubarb Chèvre Galettes
Lemon Balm Crème Fraîche Ice Cream

Cheddar, Beer and Chive Gougères

Adapted from 101 Cookbooks

When you bake the gougères, be sure to let them brown all the way up the sides so they retain their structure and don't collapse into flat pancakes. Don't use extra-large eggs, or your dough will be too wet and floppy; large eggs should weigh 2 ounces in the shell. Feel free to play with additions here: caramelized onions, crisp bacon pieces, and different cheeses or herbs would all be excellent additions/substitutions.

If you don't want to bake all the gougères at once, you can either: re-heat pre-baked gougères to order; reserve the dough for up to a day in the fridge, then scoop and bake (the dough will oxidize if kept longer than that); or scoop the dough onto a parchment-lined sheet pan, freeze, then store the frozen scoops in a double zip-lock bag and bake from frozen.

Makes 2 dozen large (or 4 dozen small) gougères

2/3 cup beer (I used Anchor Steam lager)
1/3 cup milk
8 tablespoons butter, thickly sliced
scant 3/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/2 cup (2 1/2 ounces) all-purpose flour
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon (2 1/2 ounces) whole spelt (or whole wheat) flour
4 large eggs
1 cup grated sharp cheddar, plus another 1/2 cup for topping the gougères (4 1/2 ounces total)
scant 1/2 cup (1 ounce) grated parmesan
1 cup finely chopped chives (from 1 bunch)

Position a rack in the upper third of the oven and preheat to 425º. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Combine the beer, milk, butter and salt in a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan and bring just to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to medium. Dump in the flours and stir vigorously with a wooden spoon until the dough comes together in a smooth ball. Keep stirring heartily for another 1-2 minutes until the dough looks shiny and smells toasty; feel the burn (but don't burn the batter).

Remove the pot from the heat and let cool slightly for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, so that the eggs don't scramble when they hit the dough. (You can also do this in a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment). One at a time, stir in the eggs; the dough will break apart at first, but will come back together as you stir. Add 1 cup of the grated cheddar, and all of the parmesan and chives.

Scoop the dough onto the parchmented baking sheet, spacing the blobs at least 2 inches apart. A spring-loaded ice cream scoop works wonders. I used the red-handled (#24) scoop for the ones shown, which makes hearty gougères; a #40 scoop (a generous tablespoon) makes smaller, snack-sized treats. Sprinkle the tops with a bit of extra cheddar.

Put the gougères in the oven and bake for 10 minutes for large gougères, 5 minutes for small ones. Decrease the oven temperature to 375º. Bake the gougères until golden-brown all over, puffed, and set, 15-20 more minutes for large ones (less time for small ones), rotating the gougères toward the end of the baking time.

Gougères are best served warm from the oven, but they will keep at room temperature for a few days and can be reheated "to order."

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Tarragon Olive Oil Ice Cream

In the preface to Chez Panisse Desserts, Alice Waters writes:
[Dessert] should be just the right flavor and texture to complete the meal, something to amuse and surprise the palate one more time–never overwhelming or dulling.
This ice cream embodies those principals, with its creamy, delicate texture and unusual combination of flavors. A bit of flaky salt lends eye-opening crunch, and I dare your palate to not be amused by the subtle complexity of fruity olive oil and herbaceous tarragon.

I never would have thought to combine tarragon and olive oil in an ice cream. But last week, I came upon the idea while helping professional food photographer Eric Wolfinger style a shoot illustrating the concept of savory elements in desserts for Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants.

Pre-shoot, I read through a series of interviews by Kimpton pastry chefs, including Tim Nugent of Scala's in San Francisco, who said that his favorite dessert to incorporate savory elements into is gelato; specifically, tarragon olive oil. So I put that on the list, and Eric responded by saying, "Tarragon olive oil gelato? I want to eat that!"

He didn't have to twist my arm. I whipped up a batch based on David Lebovitz's olive oil ice cream from my ice cream bible, The Perfect Scoop, and blended in a bunch of blanched and shocked tarragon, a technique I learned from my stint at Farallon which keeps the herb looking vibrant. The finished ice cream was bright pea green and tasted like nothing I'd ever experienced previously. During the shoot, we ended up nestling a scoop of it beside a strip of bacon topped with whole roasted baby bell peppers which we drizzled with dark chocolate and sprinkled with flakes of sea salt and crushed peppercorns. It tasted as outrageous as it sounds.

While I enjoyed the crazy dessert we concocted for the photo shoot, I like this ice cream best plain, drizzled with a bit more olive oil and flecked with a tiny pinch of crunchy Maldon salt. But tarragon and olive oil both pair well with citrus (especially grapefruit), berries and chocolate. I can imagine serving this in a berry soup, with grilled peaches or pineapple, with black pepper shortbread, or next to a slice of flourless chocolate cake. And I'd wager that basil olive oil ice cream would be a tasty variation, lacking tarragon.

While you might expect olive oil ice cream to feel heavy on the palate, or taste unpleasantly like olives (or oil), the effect is actually sublime. The texture is as smooth, dense and delicate as any good, home-churned ice cream, and the flavor comes through as something mysterious, subtle and fruity. In this ice cream, the flavor of the tarragon adds yet another dimension, winding its way around the nuances of the olive oil without obscuring it.

If you're not familiar with the flavor of tarragon, it is often (unjustly) said to taste like licorice. But licorice conjures up waxy red and black candies that no one in their right mind would get excited about. Jerry Traunfeld, owner of The Herbfarm, gives a more vivid description of the misrepresented plant in The Herbfarm Cookbook:
Freshly picked tarragon will fill your mouth with a strong minty heat and release a peppery sensation in your throat that lingers for quite some time. The predominant flavor in tarragon comes from the identical essential oil that's found in anise, but rather than having a cloying licorice quality, it has citrus and green herb characteristics that, combined with its spiciness, produce a delicious savoriness.

Or, to quote my friend, videographer Pete Lee, who also tasted this ice cream:
Eric said tarragon tastes like licorice, and I was like, 'I don't like licorice.' But then I tasted the ice cream and I was like, 'I like that.' 

Herbal Ice Creams:
Lemon Balm Crème Fraîche
Chocolate Mint Chip
Lemon Verbena (and Red Berry Shakes)

One year ago:
Buckwheat Chocolate Chip Cookies
Caramelized Apple Bread Pudding
Beer Rye Sourdough
Two years ago:
Tangerine Poppyseed Brunch Cake
Nibby Matcha Wafers

Tarragon Olive Oil Ice Cream

Inspired by Tim Nugent and based on David Lebovitz' Olive Oil Ice Cream from The Perfect Scoop

This ice cream is all about the olive oil, so use the best stuff you can afford, preferably freshly-pressed and extra-virgin. French tarragon (as opposed to the Russian variety) has the best flavor and is the stuff most commonly found at well-stocked grocery stores and farmer's markets (see photo in post, above). This ice cream is 'amusing and surprising' on its own, or drizzled with a bit of extra olive oil and flecked with a pinch of flaky sea salt; see the post above for further serving suggestions.

Makes about 1 quart, 6-8 servings

1 cup heavy cream

6 large egg yolks

1 1/3 cups whole milk
1/2 cup sugar
pinch salt

1 bunch tarragon, de-stemmed (1 generous cup, gently packed)

1/2 cup fruity, extra-virgin olive oil

Cook the custard:
Place the heavy cream in a 1-quart capacity container (I use a mason jar) and set aside. Place the egg yolks in a medium bowl anchored on a damp towel and set aside.

In a medium saucepan, warm the milk, sugar and salt over a medium flame, swirling the pot occasionally until the milk is steaming and small bubbles form on the bottom of the pan, a few minutes.

When the milk is hot, dribble it into the yolks, whisking constantly. Return the mixture to a medium-low flame, and cook, stirring constantly with a heat-proof silicone spatula, scraping the sides and bottom of the pan, until the mixture begins to "stick" (form a film on) the bottom of the pan, a few minutes.

Immediately remove the pot from the heat and pour the hot custard into the cold, heavy cream. Place in the fridge to chill for at least 4 hours, and up to 2 days. (If you're in a hurry, you can place the mixture in an ice water bath and stir until it is cold.)

Prepare the tarragon:
Bring a medium saucepan of water to a rolling boil. Have a medium bowl filled with ice water at the ready. Blanche the tarragon until bright green, 5-10 seconds, drain through a strainer, and plunge into the ice water. When it's cold, drain it and use your hands to squeeze all the water out.

Place the blanched, squeezed tarragon in a blender. Add about a cup of the cold ice cream base and blend on low until smooth, slowly adding the remaining ice cream base. With the motor still running, slowly pour in the olive oil. Strain the mixture through a fine-mesh sieve.

Churn the ice cream:
Return the ice cream base to the jar and place it in the freezer for half an hour to get it really cold, shaking or stirring it every 10 minutes (this will make for a smoother ice cream). Spin the ice cream in an ice cream maker until it is the consistency of a thick milkshake. Transfer the ice cream to a storage container (preferably one that has been chilled in the freezer) and freeze for at least 2 hours for a scoopable consistency.

Serve scoops of ice cream with a drizzle of olive oil and a pinch of flaky sea salt, such as Maldon. The ice cream is best within a week of being made, but will keep for several months.