Friday, September 28, 2012

Maple Bourbon Pecan Ice Cream

While I usually try to shield myself from disturbing current events ("the bad news," as I call it), one has piqued my interest: the recent maple syrup theft in Quebec. Besides being an unprecedented culinary tragedy, the honeyed heist also gives depth of meaning to my so-called Stolen Granola

Questions abound: Who are the culprits? What was their motive? Will it affect my baking? Do they now find themselves in a sticky situation? 

I don't know about the thieves, but if I had stolen millions of dollars worth of maple syrup, I'd swallow the evidence. Quick. I'd down it in Maple Bourbon Pecan Pie, hide it in Maple Bourbon Brown Butter Granola, and pour it over Gluten-Free Banana Buckwheat Pancakes. I might dispose of some in this maple-bourbon cocktail.

But most of it would disappear into an enormous batch of my latest ice cream addiction.

Every recipe I post on this site is one that feels complete, as good as it can possibly be, but this ice cream has received particularly high praise. Eyes widen as the first bite is taken; friends vigilantly watching their weight ask for seconds; Jay, who rarely enjoys ice cream on its own, will eagerly accept a bowl; and my chocophiliac sister asked me to make it for her birthday, which is unprecedented for a non-chocolate dessert.

In addition to the winning combination (I just accidentally typed "sinning combination") of maple, bourbon and pecans, flaky salt crystals lodged within crunchy clusters of candied pecans enhance  flavors. Salt plays beautifully with the earthy maple and sweetened nuts, and the crisp nuggets contrast their creamy surroundings. The pecans, enrobed in hardened caramel, stay crisp, quite unlike the soggy bits you may remember from store-bought Butter Pecan.

Best of all, this ice cream tastes intensely of maple, due to generous amounts of grade B syrup, which is darker in color and more richly flavored than grade A. It lends the cool cream a warmth of flavor, bridging the gap from summer to fall and whispering of winter holidays. 

This ice cream also has the added bonus of being softly scoopable straight from the freezer. The sugars in the maple and the alcohol in the bourbon conspire to keep it pliant, the texture of Italian gelato kept at the proper (warmer) temperature.

This dessert needs no embellishment, but it wouldn't hurt to add it to a slice of apple pie, or to serve it  with a few crisp Maple Bacon Sugar Cookies.

Wait, there's a bacon shortage, too!?

We all scream for:
Irish Coffee Ice Cream
Cacao Nib Ice Cream
Pumpkin Ice Cream

Maple Bourbon Pecan Ice Cream

Grade B maple syrup is darker and more flavorful than grade A, and will lend a more pronounced maple flavor, which is what we want here. This ice cream is best within the first week of churning when the candied pecans are crisp. After that, the hardened caramel melts and the pecans begin to soften; there are worse fates, though. If you like, save a few pretty pieces of the brittle to use as garnish.

Makes about 5 cups

Ice Cream Base:
3/4 cup maple syrup (preferably grade B)
1 cup half and half (or whole milk)
1/8 teaspoon fine sea salt
4 egg yolks
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
3 tablespoons bourbon whiskey (such as Bulleit)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Salty Candied Pecans:
1 cup pecans, toasted, cooled, and broken into quarters or sixths
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon corn syrup
1 teaspoon butter
1/2 teaspoon flaky salt (such as Malden)

Make the ice cream base:
In a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine the maple syrup, half and half and fine salt. Heat over a medium flame, stirring occasionally, until the mixture starts to steam and small bubbles form around the edges. (If the mixture begins to look curdled, take it off the heat and don't worry; it will smooth out in the next step. It's just the acidity of the maple syrup having its way with the milk solids.)

Place the egg yolks in a medium bowl and place the bowl on a damp kitchen towel to anchor it. Place the cold, heavy cream in a heat-proof bowl and set a mesh sieve over the bowl. 

Slowly dribble the hot milk mixture into the yolks, whisking constantly. Return the mixture to the pot, place over a low flame, and cook, stirring constantly with a heat-proof silicone spatula, until the mixture begins to "stick" or form a film on the bottom of the pan, or reaches 170º. Immediately remove the pan from the heat, and pour the mixture through the strainer and into the cold cream. Stir to combine, then cover and chill until very cold, at least 4 hours and up to 2 days.

While the base chills, candy the pecans:
In a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan, add enough water to barely cover the bottom of the pan. Add the sugar to the center of the pot, moisten it evenly with the water, and wash any crystals that get on the sides of the pan down into the water. Add the corn syrup and cover the pot with a lid. Place the pot over medium-high heat and bring to a boil until the sugar has dissolved.

Have the butter, salt and nuts measured and at the ready, and have a sheet of parchment paper or a baking sheet ready on which to dump the candied nuts.

Remove the lid from the pot, and, without stirring, boil the syrup until it reaches an amber caramel. (If the mixture begins to crystallize, you can save it by adding more water and beginning the caramelization process again.) Remove the pot from the heat and immediately swirl in the butter and salt, then add the nuts and stir quickly to coat with a heat-proof silicone spatula.

Dump and scrape the nuts out onto the parchment, and quickly separate the pieces with the spatula as much as possible. You can use your fingers when the mixture cools a little more, stretching it into fun shapes. Let the nuts cool, break or chop up any large clumps, then freeze the nuts while you...

Churn the ice cream:
Stir the bourbon and vanilla into the chilled ice cream base. Place the ice cream base in the freezer for half an hour to get it really cold, stirring it every 10 minutes to prevent ice crystals from forming.

Churn in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer's instructions. When the ice cream is the consistency of a thick milkshake, stir in the candied pecan pieces. Scrape the ice cream into a container, and freeze until scoopable, at least 4 hours.

The ice cream is best within a week of churning, but will keep for several months. Store with a piece of parchment paper pressed to the surface to prevent ice crystals from forming.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Dark and Stormy

In a sea of beverages awash with garish, sugary cocktails like Chi-Chi's, Buttery Nipples, and Blow Jobs, this refreshing libation can be a port in a storm.

Traditionally a mixture of dark rum, ginger beer, and an optional squeeze of lime, the Dark and Stormy gets its name from its dusky appearance (when compared to most tropical drinks). Its popularity has sailed far from its homeland, Bermuda, to Australia and the States. And for good reason: it manages to quench one's thirst with ice and lime while invigorating with floral rum and spicy ginger. 

Upon tasting my first Dark and Stormy in Nantucket last month, I fell head over heels (and not merely because I drank too many). While cocktails stereotypically tend to divide between the sexes (stiff classics for the gents; sugared, fruit-flavored concoctions for the ladies), the universally-appealing Dark and Stormy swings both ways. Dark rum, distilled from sugar cane, lends sweet, caramel notes, but good ginger beer and a squeeze of lime balance with spice and tang. 

Several methods can produce an excellent dark and stormy, the quickest being to use store-bought ginger beer (I tried may different types, including the traditional Barritt's, and found Ginger People's to have the most bite). Or you can be super bad-ass and brew your own ginger beer, which takes a couple days and requires a bit of planning. (Tony Cecchini outlines a stripped-down technique in this fantastic article.) 

I like to split the difference, making a quick ginger soda from freshly-grated ginger root, agave and sparkling water (which I have in ample supply now that I've acquired my beloved soda siphon). 

Gosling's Black Seal rum is the traditional one to use, and I vastly prefer it to the others I've tried (Meyer's and The Kraken). Its deep copper color carries the light yet complex flavors of maple, caramel and spice. It blends beautifully with the ginger, taking on an almost floral quality, whereas other dark rums have stronger molasses notes that overpower the more delicate nuances.

I hope you fall for the Dark and Stormy as Jay and I have. Like any sailor, it's got girls (and boys) in every port.

Spicy libations:
Bojon Masala Chai + a shot of whiskey = : )

Fresh Ginger Dark and Stormy

Unless it is excessively dirty, there is no need to peel the ginger prior to grating it. When I make these for a crowd, I grate the ginger on a box grater rather than a microplane to make it go faster; alternately, you can put the ginger through a juicer. Gosling's Black Seal rum is the one to use if you can get it (BevMo is a good bet); its flavor is unparalleled. But it will still be tasty with The Kraken or Meyers.

I've been told that a shot is anywhere from 1 1/2 - 3 ounces by volume. Being a lightweight, I keep these on the demure side so that I won't drink myself under the table (or end up dancing on top of it). But feel free to make 'em stronger if you like! More rum may necessitate more agave.

Makes 2 drinks

2 packed teaspoons finely grated fresh gingerroot
3 ounces by volume (1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons) Gosling's Black Seal dark rum
2 tablespoons light agave nectar
2 lime wedges
1 - 1 1/2 cups sparkling water

In a small pitcher or measuring cup, combine the ginger, rum and agave, stirring well to combine. Fill two tumblers with ice cubes. Squeeze a lime wedge into each cup and throw the spent wedges into the glasses as well.

Strain the rum mixture through a fine mesh sieve, dividing it equally between the glasses, pressing on the ginger with the back of a spoon to extract all the liquid. Top off with ample sparkling water (1/2 to 3/4 cup each). Stir to combine, and enjoy!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Roasted Eggplant Tomato Tart

Last year I related the story of "Steve," a well-known pastry chef who came to my school to give a demonstration on How To Make Two Dozen Culinary Students (and Their Teacher) Hate You.

After trimming a tart crust, Steve took a break from humiliating his captive audience, mashed the dough scraps together, and held the lump aloft for all to see. "I used to wrap these in plastic and store them in my freezer," he whined, "then two months later I'd throw them away. Now I just throw them away." He made a show of chucking the offending lump of dough, which was half the size of his crust, in the garbage.

Wanting to be in every way opposite from Steve, I began wrapping and storing excess dough scraps in my freezer.

When I make pie dough, I take the extra step of fraisage-ing, folding and rolling the dough, as though making puff pastry. The small amount of extra work makes for an exceptionally flaky crust, but when rolled out, it insists on becoming more square than round. Once trimmed to a circle, the cut-off corners are ample.

So I do unto my dough what I would like to have done unto Steve: I flatten the scraps into a disc, wrap it in plastic and a freezer-safe zip-lock bag to prevent freezer burn, and store it below 32 degrees Fahrenheit. (Not a perfect analogy – I wouldn't care if Steve got freezer burnt.*) After three or four pies, I have enough scraps in my freezer for a fresh pie or tart. (And zero pastry chefs, I swear.)

I pressed my last set of scraps together into a sort of franken-crust, par baked it, and filled it according to a recipe from Once Upon a Tart, one of my all-time favorite cookbooks. Frank and Jerome's gem of a book chronicles (mostly vegetarian) recipes from their adorable New York cafe, and this tart is nothing short of spectacular.

Parmesan, goat cheese and slivered basil form a bed onto which sliced tomatoes and garlic-roasted eggplant layer in concentric circles. A simple custard brings everything together as it bakes, and small basil leaves make a simple and pretty garnish.

This crust is as shatteringly flaky as the originals from whence they came, making a crisp foil to the meltingly-tender filling. Dry farmed tomatoes, which are dense and low in moisture, prevent the tart from becoming soggy, their flavor intensifying in the heat of the oven. The layer of cheese beneath the custard also helps keep the bottom crust firm, and gives the tart big flavor. "It tastes like pizza," Jay exclaimed after I'd shoved a slice into his mouth; it certainly satisfies like a gooey-crisp slice of pizza (especially a deep-dish slice of a Little Star pie). It reminds me of eggplant parmesan baked in a buttery crust. The flavors are summery and bright, but the rich dairy softens the bite of the eggplant into early-fall comfort. A green salad and glass of wine make it a perfectly nourishing vegetarian lunch or supper.

*No animals were harmed in the making of this tart – not even a grumpy pastry chef.

Once upon a (savory) tart:
Bacon, Leek and Fennel Quiche
Zucchini-Tomato Tart
Pear, Blue Cheese and Hazelnut Tart

Über Aubergines:
Baked Penne with Eggplant and Fontina
Eggplant Parmesan
Roasted Summer Vegetable Caponata

One year ago:
Roasted Eggplant Pizza with Fontina and Olives
Two years ago:
Pink Pearl Apple Custard Tart
Three years ago: (What? Yes, it's true! Happy third birthday to The Bojon Gourmet!)
Spelty Sourdough Crackers

Roasted Eggplant Tomato Tart, with Basil and Goat Cheese

Adapted from Once Upon a Tart

Unless you have scraps with which to make a franken-crust, use your favorite pie dough, or the recipe below. The cultured dairy adds extra tenderness and flake, but you can leave it out, no problem - just add extra ice water. See this post on making puff pastry for pictures of the fraisage/folding/rolling process. (You may wish to make a double batch of dough if you do these extra steps; double-wrap it and store it in the freezer for up to several months.) Also note that a metal pan will conduct the heat more quickly than a glass or ceramic pan; if you use a metal pan, check the par-baking crust earlier than suggested.

Dry-farmed tomatoes are my favorite, but you can substitute flavorful, ripe Romas or San Marzanos. Small, fresh eggplants tend to be mild and sweet, and don't usually need to have the bitterness sweated out. If yours are more elderly, toss the slices with a couple teaspoons of salt and let them sit for 30 minutes, then pat them dry, and taste a roasted slice before adding more salt to the recipe.

Makes one 9 - 10" tart, 8 servings

Flakiest, all-butter pie crust:
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup whole spelt (or whole wheat pastry) flour
1 teaspoon sugar (optional)
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
4 ounces (8 tablespoons/1 stick) cold, unsalted butter, in 1/2" dice
2 tablespoons buttermilk, sour cream or crème fraîche
2 tablespoons ice water, more as needed

Eggplant-Tomato Filling:
1 pound Japanese or small globe eggplants, sliced into 1/4-1/2" thick rounds
2 garlic cloves, pressed
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 pounds small, flavorful tomatoes (about 8 or 9, see headnote), cut into 1/4" thick rounds
1/2 cup finely grated parmesan
1/3 cup fresh goat cheese, crumbled
1/4 cup basil leaves, thinly sliced, plus some pretty leaves for garnish

2 large eggs
1/4 cup heavy cream or half and half
1 teaspoon salt
freshly ground pepper

Make the crust:
In a large bowl, stir together the flours, sugar and salt. Scatter the butter pieces over the flour, and rub in with your fingertips until the mixture resembles sand with lots of pea-sized butter chunks. Stir together the buttermilk and ice water. Drizzle this mixture over the flour mixture, 1 tablespoon at a time, tossing with a rubber spatula, until the dough will hold together when you give it a squeeze, adding more ice water by the teaspoon directly to the dry bits as needed.

You can call it here, or you can do either or both of the steps below for extra flake:

Option 1 - fraisage:
Dump the dough out onto a counter, divide it roughly into 8 portions, and fraisage by dragging a portion of dough across the counter using the heel of your hand. Scrape up the dough (a metal bench scraper works well here), gently press it into a ball and flatten into a disc. Slip it into a plastic bag, and chill for at least 30 minutes or up to 2 days.

Option 2 - roll, fold, roll:
On a lightly floured surface, roll the chilled dough out into a rough square that is about 1/4" thick. Fold it in thirds like you're folding a letter, then roll up from a skinny end into a loose spiral. Gently press to flatten it slightly, and chill for 30 minutes to 1 hour.

Remove the dough from the fridge, unwrap, and place on a lightly floured surface. Roll out the dough into a 12" circle, dusting the dough lightly with flour as needed, rotating and flipping it to prevent it from sticking. Ease the dough into a 9 or 10" tart pan (or a 9" glass pie plate), fit it into the corners, and trim it to a 1" overhang. Fold the overhang into the pan, pressing to adhere so that the sides are double-thickness. Trim away any excess dough, and prick the crust all over with a fork. Save the scraps to patch any post-par-baking holes, and/or to make a future franken-crust.

Chill the crust for 20 minutes, then freeze it for at least 20 minutes, until solid.

While the crust chills, prepare the eggplant:
Position a rack in the upper third of the oven and preheat to 450ºF. Toss the eggplant slices with the garlic and olive oil, and spread on a lightly oiled sheet pan. Bake until the eggplant begins to brown, 10-15 minutes, flipping the slices if they are browning on the bottom but not the top. Remove and let cool.

Par-bake the crust:
Position a rack in the bottom third of the oven, and reduce the oven temperature to 400ºF. Place the frozen crust on a rimmed baking sheet. Line the crust with a piece of parchment paper or foil, and fill with pie weights, dry beans, or clean pennies, pressing the weights into the sides and corners of the crust.

Bake the crust for 15-20 minutes, until the dough will hold its shape when you lift off the parchment, then remove the weights and parchment and bake until the bottom is dry and lightly golden, about 5 minutes longer. (If there are any holes in the crust, patch them with a tiny piece of dough scrap.) Reduce the oven temperature to 350ºF.

Assemble the tart:
Cover the bottom of the par-baked crust with the parmesan, then crumble the goat cheese over, and top with an even layer of slivered basil. Layer the eggplant and tomato slices–alternating between eggplant and tomato–in concentric circles, beginning with the outside and working inward. Use small pieces to fill in any gaps, so that the crust is completely covered.

Make the custard and bake the tart:
In a measuring cup, whisk the eggs to break up the yolks, then whisk in the cream, salt, and a good grinding of black pepper. Pour the custard over the vegetables.

Carefully transfer the tart to the oven and bake until the custard is set, firm to the touch, and doesn't jiggle when you give it a shake, about 1 hour 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool to warm on a wire rack. Garnish with basil leaves.

Serve the tart warm. Leftovers will keep well for up to 3 days–re-heat before serving.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Fresh Fig Flatbread with Goat Cheese and Arugula

In Venice, Italy many years ago, my best friend and I dined at a tourist trap of a pizzeria that boasted over a hundred flavors. We ordered one with brie and pear, and were both taken by the combination of savory/sweet/funky flavors and gooey-crispness.

When I later mentioned this to an Italian, he just scoffed and made gagging noises.

Now that I'm safely back in a land where a-traditional food combinations are encouraged rather than reviled, I'm happy to share this savory-sweet flatbread that blurs the lines between hors d'oeuvre, salad and cheese plate.

I've been wanting to do something with the incredible figs in season aside from grabbing one, breaking it in half, and putting it in my mouth each time I walk though the kitchen. Lillie of Butter Me Up, Brooklyn provided excellent inspiration with a flatbread of mascarpone, peaches, and a balsamic-honey reduction. I got to work. 

I mixed up a whole wheat pizza dough, stretched it into a thin round, then topped it with fresh figs, parmesan and crumbles of soft goat cheese. Into the oven it went, emerging 10 minutes later with a bubbly crust, gooey, roasted figs and bronzed cheeses. A drizzle of fruity olive oil, plenty of black pepper, flaky salt, and spicy arugula go on top. But the coup de grace is the reduction of balsamic vinegar and honey that, when drizzled over the figs, accentuates their sweet-tartness, and adds some extra goo to the flatbread.

Take a bite, and the crispy bottom gives way to creamy goat cheese, salty parmesan and meltingly tender figs. Warm goat cheese is one of life's unparalleled pleasures, and it pairs well with figs so ripe they ooze with honey-like goo. Peppery arugula and olive oil add bite and freshness to all the sweet richness going on. The bread itself is crisp tender, nutty and complex from the bran and germ.

Figs don't continue to ripen once picked (though they do soften). Look for figs that are soft and feel heavy for their size, and store them at room temperature for a day or two, max. Beads of nectar emanating from their bottoms are a good sign of ripeness.

Unlike pizza, this tastebud-titillating flatbread prefers to be cut into small squares and eaten out of hand while sipping a cocktail (stay tuned for a rendition of my current favorite!) or glass of prosecco. And here's a great tip I learned for re-heating pizza/flatbread: put it in a cast-iron skillet and place it over a medium-low flame. Let it heat for about 5 minutes, whereupon the bottom will be nicely crisp, the topping heated through but not dry. I'm eating reheated flatbread as I write this, and it is tastes nearly as good as it did fresh from the oven.

Pazza for pizza:
Asparagus Pesto Pizza
Roasted Eggplant Pizza with Fontina and Olives
Sourdough Pizza with Chanterelles, Shallots and Chèvre

Fig fanatic:
Fig and Ginger Scones
Berry-Fig Financiers
Huckleberry-Fig Crumble Tart

One year ago:
Ginger Plum Crumble
Two years ago:
Vanilla Brown Butter Peach Buckle

Whole Wheat Flatbread with Fresh Figs, Chèvre and Arugula

The dough and balsamic reduction recipes below make enough for three flatbreads; extra dough can be stored in an oiled, airtight container (that is a few times the size of the dough to allow for expansion) in the fridge for up to 5 days, or in the freezer for up to 1 month. Bring the dough to room temperature before proceeding with the recipe. Since this dough is fairly wet, necessary for easy stretching and a light, crisp crust, it is best kneaded in a stand mixer. If you must knead it by hand, add as little flour as possible to keep the dough from sticking to your hands and the kneading surface. If you don't have "00" pizzeria flour, use bread flour in its place; you may need to add more flour to the dough. 

Each flatbread serves 4 as an appetizer

The flatbread dough:
Adapted from The Cheese Board Collective Works
Makes enough dough for three 10-12" flatbreads

1 package (about 2 1/4 teaspoons) active dry yeast
1 1/2 cups warm water
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 1/2 teaspoons sea salt
1 cup whole wheat bread flour
2 to 2 1/2 cups "type 00" pizzeria flour (or white bread flour)

The balsamic reduction:
Makes enough for three flatbreads

1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons honey

The toppings:
Enough for one flatbread

super-good extra-virgin olive oil for brushing and drizzling
10 figs, any color
4 ounces soft, fresh goat cheese
1/2 ounce parmesan, finely grated (on a microplane)
a large handful of small arugula leaves
flaky salt and fresh black pepper

Make the dough:
Place the water in the bowl of a stand mixer, and sprinkle the yeast over the top. Let sit 5-10 minutes to dissolve, then add the oil, salt, whole wheat flour, and 1 cup of the 00 flour. Fit the mixer with the paddle attachment, and mix on low speed for 5 minutes to make a wet dough, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary. Add 1/2 cup more of 00 flour. Switch to the dough hook, increase the mixer speed to medium, and knead for 7 minutes, adding more flour by the tablespoon until dough comes away from the sides of the bowl. After 7 minutes, the dough should feel smooth and soft, and slightly sticky, but not too wet.

Place the dough in a large, lightly oiled bowl or container, and cover tightly with plastic wrap or a lid. Let the dough rise in a warm place until doubled or tripled in bulk, 1 to 1 1/2 hours. (Alternately, let it rise in the fridge overnight.)

Prepare the toppings:
In a small saucepan, stir together the balsamic and honey. Bring to a simmer over medium heat and continue to simmer, swirling occasionally, until thick, syrupy and reduced by about half, about 5 minutes. Pour into a small, heat-proof bowl, let cool, then chill in the fridge to thicken. (The reduction will keep in the fridge for probably a long time.)

Slice the tops and bottoms off the figs and cut them into 1/4" slices. Rinse the arugula and spin it dry. Have the other ingredients at the ready.

Assemble and bake the flatbreads:
Position a rack in the bottom of the oven, and remove any other racks from the oven. If you have a baking stone, place it on the rack. (Lacking a stone, place an inverted, heavy baking sheet in the oven, or just form the pizza directly onto a baking sheet in the following steps.) Preheat the oven to 500º for at least 30 minutes.

Scrape the risen dough out onto a lightly-floured surface. Divide the dough into three balls, and keep the other two covered while you work with the first. On a lightly floured surface, tuck the edges of the dough under itself to make a loose ball, then flatten the dough into a disc. Gently press, pull and stretch the dough into a 10-12" round; if it is very springy, let it rest for a few minutes to relax the glutens.

Place the dough on a piece of parchment paper set on a pizza peel (or large cutting board). Trim the edges of the parchment so they stick out 1" on all sides. Brush the dough all over with olive oil. Crumble the goat cheese evenly over the dough, going right to edges, then top with an even layer of the grated parmesan. Place the fig slices evenly over the cheese and press them down gently.

Slip the pizza on its parchment onto the hot baking stone in the oven. Bake the pizza until the bottom of the crust is golden, the figs are roasted and the cheese is beginning to color, about 8-12 minutes.

Use a pair of tongs to pull the flatbread from the oven and onto a large cutting board. Drizzle the figs with a teaspoon or two of olive oil and 1/3 of the balsamic reduction. Grind some pepper over the top, and sprinkle with a couple pinches of flaky salt, then cover with the arugula. Cut into 12-16 squares and serve immediately.

Repeat with the remaining flatbreads.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Super-Moist Pink Pearl Apple Cake

I picked up a copy of The Arrows Cookbook during a stint on a low-carb diet many years ago. I was in Bookshop Santa Cruz, it was on display, and I was hungry.

In 1988, Top Chefs Clark Frasier and Mark Gaier moved across the country from Stars in San Francisco to open the now widely-renowned Arrows Restaurant in Maine. Their recipes, like those of Chez Panisse, are all timeless classics that, despite being 10 or 20 years old, always feel fresh, inspired, and original.

The plethora of healthy salads and simple meat and fish preparations caught my eye; recipes like Asparagus with Mizuna, Blood Orange Vinaigrette, and Proscuitto; Grilled Tuna with Tomatoes and Gremolata Aioli;  and Lemongrass Roasted Chicken. I hadn't yet come to terms with my extreme squeamishness, and had decided to try cooking proteins beyond just bean and cheese burritos. (The book's idyllic gardening instructions also helped convince me to try my hand and growing produce, which didn't work out so well, either.)

Of course, once I got the book home all I could think about in my carb-deprived state was the Super-Moist Apple Cake, rustic and craggy beneath a blanket of cinnamon sugar. The cake earned its title due to the scant cup of heavy cream which got poured over the pre-baked, apple-topped batter.

So I made some sad, diet-appropriate attempt at this cake. I don't recall what modifications I made beyond using soymilk instead of heavy cream, but the results were neither super nor moist.

When my friend Kelly brought me another bushel of home-grown pink pearl apples last week (thanks, Kelly!), my thoughts returned to the super-moist apple cake, and I gave it another go. I couldn't resist cutting down the sugar a bit (it called for an awful lot, even for a non-dieting pastry chef immune to the butteriest of recipes), subbing in maple sugar, and swapping in whole spelt flour for some of the white stuff.

The first attempt was tasty, but still needed some tweaking. The recipe called for a 10" round cake pan, an odd size, so I baked it in my 10" cast-iron skillet, and it was still so full that it trickled juices onto the oven floor. I got 16 pieces of cake out of it, which is way more cake than most people (even non-dieting butter-philes) generally wish to have around.

So for trial 2, I cut the recipe down by a third, and baked it in a 9" pan. Since the soft apples and custardy pockets were the best part of the cake, I left those measurements the same, the extra moisture compensating for the reduced sugar in the cake. I also omitted the cinnamon sugar topping to leave the pretty-in-pink apples exposed and their bright flavor intact. 

This turned out a much more civilized quantity of cake with ample apples, plenty of moisture from the cream, and bits of custardy goo throughout. Whole spelt flour adds a nubby wheaty-ness that makes this coffee-cake-esque, fitting for a brunch or tea-time snack. The maple sugar adds warmth and earthy sweetness which contrasts beautifully with the lemony-tart apples.

It is indeed a superb, moist apple cake, with bright flavors that are just right for ushering in fall. And, hey, it's even a little bit healthy.

In the pink:
Pink Pearl Apple Custard Tart
Über Apple Upside-Down Cake
Apple Rhubarb Pandowdy
Roasted Quince and Apple Turnovers
Apple Huckleberry Pie, with Sourdough Pie Crust

One year ago:
Sweet Corn Grits with Berries and Honey
Two years ago:
Smoky Baba Ganouj (we just polished off a batch of this - so good!)

Super-Moist Pink Pearl Apple Coffee Cake

Adapted quite a bit from The Arrows Cookbook

If you lack pink pearls, substitute any apple you like in its place; gravensteins or pink ladies would be my first choices. I find a T-shaped vegetable peeler the easiest way to peel apples: peel off the upper-and bottom-most ring of skin, then move around the apple removing the peel in downward strips. If you like a bit of spice, add 1/2-1 teaspoon of cinnamon to the sugar in the topping. Maple sugar is a luxury; feel free to use brown or unrefined cane sugar in its place. All ounce measurements are by weight.

Makes one 9" cake, about 10 servings

The cake:
4 ounces (1 stick/8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons (4 1/2 ounces) maple sugar
2 large eggs at room temperature
1 cup (5 ounces) all-purpose flour
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons (2 1/2 ounces) whole spelt (or whole wheat pastry) flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup whole milk
3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

The topping:
3-4 medium pink pearl apples, peeled, cut off the core, and sliced 1/4" thick
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons heavy cream
1/4 cup granulated (organic turbinado) sugar

Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350º. Butter a 9" round cake pan and line the bottom with a circle of parchment paper.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream together the butter and maple sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy, 3-5 minutes.

Meanwhile, sift together the flours, baking powder and salt into a medium bowl. Stir the milk and vanilla together in a small measuring cup.

With the mixer on low, add 1/3 of the dry ingredients, and mix until just combined. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, and with the mixer on low, add 1/2 of the milk mixture, stirring until just combined. Continue like this until all the ingredients are added, then remove the bowl from the mixer, and give the batter a final turn with a rubber spatula to make sure the batter is homogeneous.

Spread the batter in the prepared pan. Arrange the apple slices in concentric circles over the batter, pressing them into the batter slightly. Pour the cream all over the top, then sprinkle evenly with the sugar.

Bake the cake until a toothpick inserted comes out mostly clean with a few moist crumbs, and the cake is pulling away from the sides of the pan, about 45 minutes. Let cool. Serve warm or at room temperature.

The cake is best the day it has been made, but will keep for a day or two at room temperature in an airtight container. (The high moisture content makes it prone to molding, so store it in the fridge after that.)

Monday, September 10, 2012

Baked Penne with Eggplant and Fontina

This transition from summer into fall is possibly my favorite time of year. Never mind the early nights; I'll save my complaining for December. For now, the markets are still brimming with zucchini, peppers, stone fruit, and tomatoes in every size and color imaginable. But the air has changed. There's a crispness to the breeze that whistles through one's hair. The shadows are longer. The light looks different. There's a feeling of anticipatory excitement, of electricity.

And best of all, turning on the oven is a treat rather than a necessary evil.

This zippy yet comforting dish makes the most of the late-summer harvest: cured onions, rich dry-farmed tomatoes, and slender Japanese eggplant, all flavored with oregano, basil, parsley, chile flakes and a splash of red wine. Baking the pasta not only coats it in an ooze of three different types of cheese; it further roasts and condenses all those rich, deep flavors.

Fontina makes a perfect pairing with eggplant, as both have a slightly grown-up, funky flavor. Fontina melts into gooey puddles that would make mozzarella jealous. And when cooked thoroughly, eggplant takes on a meltingly soft, sensual texture as well. I suspect that most eggplant haters out there were traumatized at an early age by under-cooked eggplant, which has a cottony texture and untamed bitterness. When roasted in olive oil, then baked amid ample tomato sauce and cheese, eggplant's texture becomes nothing short of sexy, with a sweet flavor and a bit of sophisticated bite.

To this dynamic duo, add a gently-spiced sauce made from dry-farmed tomatoes (which are grown to be low in water and packed with vibrant tomato flavor), a handful of briny olives, chunks of piquant provolone that melt and intertwine with the fontina, and a grating of aged parmesan. I toss it all with penne (I like Tinkayada's brown rice penne, which is so pleasantly chewy that no one ever suspects its gluten-free-ness) and bake it in the oven for 30 minutes until the cheese bubbles and runs.

This dish is best fresh from the oven, as the pasta continues to absorb sauce as it sits. But all the components can be made ahead, then assembled and baked when you're ready. I baked this in two batches, and we had easy pasta meals for days. Should you bake it all at once, however, leftovers are still welcome, if a little less saucy than the original.

Baked pasta can sometimes seem heavy, but the bright flavors, light sauce and judicious amount of cheese here give the dish some lift. Serve it with a green salad (this is our favorite dressing ever) and a medium-bodied red wine such as Zinfandel or Pinot Noir.

Roasted Eggplant Pizza with Ricotta Salata and Olives
Roasted Eggplant Parmesan
Smoky Baba Ganouj

Pazza for Pasta:
Zucchini Pesto Lasagna
Pasta alla Carbonara
Mac and Cheese with Winter Squash, Bacon and Collards

Baked Penne with Eggplant and Fontina

This dish is best eaten immediately out of the oven, as the pasta continues to absorb the sauce once baked. Leftovers are still good, just a bit less saucy. All the components can be prepared ahead of time, including the pasta, stored in the fridge, and assembled and baked just before serving. Feel free to halve the recipe, or bake the penne in two separate batches, as I did above.

I find it easiest to leave the skins on the tomatoes, then run the cooked sauce through a food mill to remove the skins and puree the sauce smooth. If you lack a food mill, you can skin the tomatoes with the following method: Bring a small saucepan of water to a boil. Cut a shallow X in the bottom of each tomato. One by one, dunk each tomato in the water for about 10 seconds using a slotted spoon. Let cool, then slip off the skins, and proceed with the recipe, pulsing the cooked, cooled sauce in a food processor.

I've become a convert to Tinkayada's rice penne, which has a nice firm and chewy texture, but feel free to use any smallish pasta you like.

Makes 10-12 servings

Spicy tomato sauce:
1 medium yellow onion, diced
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 large cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
3/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 1/2 to 3 pounds tomatoes (preferably dry-farmed, romas or san marzanos)
splash red wine or water

The eggplant:
1 1/2 to 2 pounds japanese or small globe eggplant, sliced into 3/4" rounds
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt

The rest:
12 ounces dry penne pasta
3 tablespoons chopped basil, plus some pretty leaves for garnish
3 tablespoons chopped parsley
3/4 cup pitted green olives, coarsely chopped
2/3 cup cubed fontina
2/3 cup cubed aged provolone
about 2 ounces grana padana or parmesan, for grating

Make the sauce:
Halve each tomato crosswise, then squeeze or scoop out the seeds into a strainer set over a bowl to catch the juices. Dice the tomatoes. Set aside.

Heat the oil in a large soup pot or dutch oven over a medium flame. When it shimmers, add the onion and saute, stirring occasionally, until soft and translucent, 10-15 minutes. Add the garlic, oregano, chile flakes, and salt, and cook, stirring, until fragrant, 2 more minutes. Add the diced tomatoes and cook, stirring occasionally, until broken down and reduced to a thick sauce, about 30 minutes. You may need to reduce the flame to prevent splatters. Add splashes of wine or water if the pan looks dry before the tomatoes have broken down.

When the sauce is done, let it cool slightly, then pass it through a food mill to puree it smooth and remove the skins.

Meanwhile, roast the eggplant:
While the sauce is cooking, position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 400ºF. Toss together the eggplant, olive oil and salt, and place on an oiled baking sheet in a single layer. Bake until the eggplant is very soft and golden, 20-25 minutes, flipping the slices over when the bottoms begin to brown. Remove from the oven and reduce the temperature to 375ºF. When the eggplant is cool, cut each round into bite-sized pieces.

Prepare the rest:
Cook the penne according to the package instructions in well-salted water until al dente. Drain well. (If you're not baking the pasta right away, rinse it in cool water, drain well, and toss with a bit of olive oil to prevent sticking.)

In a large bowl, toss together the penne, sauce, eggplant, basil, parsley, olives, fontina and provolone. Taste for seasoning, adding salt or pepper if you like, then spread the pasta in an oiled 2 1/2-3 quart baking dish (such as a 9x13" lasagna pan). Cover with a good layer of freshly-grated parmesan.

Cover the dish with a lid or foil, and bake until the pasta is hot and the cheese is melty and gooey, about 30 minutes. Serve immediately, topped with more parmesan and small basil leaves.

Leftovers will keep for several days, tightly covered, in the fridge. Reheat before eating.