Monthly Archives: April 2011

My first order

I’ve been holding out on you.

It’s simply criminal that I haven’t yet shared this recipe. It really is. If I were to list the elements of the crime of recipe withholding (and I’ll soon be writing a LOT of essays on criminal elements), they’d probably be: 1) the individual tries out a new recipe for her blog; 2) the individual falls head-over-heels for the product of said recipe; 3) the individual gets a case of finals brain and doesn’t share the fruits of her cast-iron pan with her kind readers; 4) the individual had a mens rea of reckless selfishness.

Caramelizing is one of those techniques that used to make me nervous. There is a bit of potential for things to go wrong–you stir the caramelizing sugar with a spoon instead of swirling, and it gets hard as a rock; your heat is up too high and you end up with crispy black onions instead of soft golden ones; you end up burning sugar onto your pan, and life for that pan is never the same again– but, really, who cares. The wonders of chemistry make caramelized things so much richer and more luscious and lead to a complete transformation of flavors and texture. It’s worth an impaired pot or two. And when you get your pots from Ikea, you can stand to be a little brave every once in a while.

                                                            a butter and sugar slurry.

I’d been saving this recipe up for a long time, after finding it at Sweet Amandine. At first, I didn’t have a cast iron pan. That glaring error was corrected at christmastime, but by then, it wasn’t pear season anymore. And then, when I found some pears, it’s possible that they were just too luscious to bake. My love for fresh, ripe, good pears runs awfully deep.

Ok, ok ok. And now, it is April, and I have a pan, and I stumble upon some pears in Whole Foods. Pears in April? Not usually, but, there they were. And I even had a round of pate brisee in the freezer from the below recipe. I knew what needed to happen.

Well, wouldn’t you know it, those darn pears were rotten in the middle. My standard stockpile of Braeburn apples, to the rescue!

                        apples and cinnamon and ginger and nutmeg and alchemy.

This recipe couldn’t be more basic, more reliant on ancient ingredients and techniques. And yet, it couldn’t be more lovely. I implore you to try this. I plead, please make a batch of Deb’s blissful pie dough, and don’t mix it too much. If you’ve never made your own caramel, or if you’ve never hovered over a bubbling pan of apples and butter and sugar and spices, inhaling that rich scent, watching the gorgeous golden bubbles pop, then, well, I order you: hie thee to your crisper, fetch a few apples, and go to town, friend.

                            maybe not easy on the eyes, but certainly easy on the palate.

Mind you, she was no beauty queen–and it being 11 at night certainly didn’t help me get a good photo. If I made another (and I most certainly will), I’d probably cook it over slightly higher heat–probably just at medium. I cooked my caramel apple mixture for a long time, turning some of my thinner apple slices into transparent, sugar-saturated sheets dotted with nutmeg. This worked for me, actually. But you might want a little bit more apple-like texture to your apples, and so, cook them slightly less long.

Pear  Apple Tarte Tatin
Adapted from Sweet Amandine, who adapted it from Gourmet, November 2003, where it was adapted from a recipe by Betty Caldwell. It has a good legacy.

4 apples, on the bigger side (I’d recommend something slightly tart and citrusy; Braeburn worked well for me, but I wouldn’t use Granny Smith)
½ stick (1/4 cup) unsalted butter
½ cup sugar
½ tsp cinnamon
½ tsp ginger
a round of pâte brisée from your freezer, where one should always be living.

Core, peel, and slice the apples into eighths. Over a medium flame, melt the butter in a 9 or 10-inch cast-iron skillet. Add the sugar, and stir to form a grainy paste (something that may or may not bring on the urge to exfoliate, as I mentioned, above). Arrange the apples, cut sides up. Sprinkle the apples with the cinnamon and ginger, and cook until the sugar mixture caramelizes and turns a deep amber. I allowed it to bubble away over a medium-low flame for at least a half an hour, tilting the skillet every now and then, and scooching it around on the burner to ensure that the sugar caramelizes evenly. Let the apples and caramel cool completely in the skillet.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Roll out the pâte brisée into a round large enough to cover the skillet, and drape it over the apples. Tuck the edges of the dough into the inside rim of the skillet. I couldn’t get all of the pate brisee in the pan, but I thought that having a nice crust of uncaramelized crust around the edge would be tasty (and I wasn’t wrong). Bake for 30-35 minutes, until the crust is golden brown.

Let the tarte cool in the skillet for 5 minutes. Then, place a plate (slightly larger than the skillet) over the skillet and, using pot holders to hold the skillet and plate tightly together and holding your breath, invert the tarte onto the plate. Serve the tarte warm or at room temperature.

Serves 6.


A hastily-packed bag

Two summers ago, I spent a few months in Geneva, Switzerland. Geneva is a town full of foreigners. Every big fancy name you can think of in the field of international affairs–World Bank, United Nations, Red Cross, UNICEF, etc– is either headquartered or has a large office there.  Since all of those organizations generally hire people from all over the world, the place is lousy with transplants. The world suddenly feels very tiny when you can sit in an auditorium full of people and find about 125 nationalities among you. It’s also awfully humbling to find so many average people who can speak five languages competently, or who know what the Rome Statute does (which I didn’t know until I went to,ahem, law school). I don’t know if it’s that America is tremendously self-obsessed, or if it’s because all those petite European countries are squished together, or a combination of the two, but once I’d spent even a modicum of time out of the country, I felt as though a giant red, white, and blue snuggie was lifted, allowing me to see the rest of the world clearly for the first time.

                         On the drive to Gruyeres, where they make– you’ll never guess–

The other wonderful thing about being in Switzerland for the summer was the mobility. That country has five borders! What abundance! Geneva is on the end of Switzerland that pokes its little head into France, yet is also only a few hours from northern Italy. Not having even a lick of German, and having my hands full with all the places in France I wanted to see, I avoided the eastern side of Switzerland and its teutonic neighbors. The transporting things I ate in France and Italy can wait for another day. What I’m longing for at the moment is the feeling of wandering a brand new city, all by myself, where not a soul knows me. Don’t mistake me–I love my people, up and down and all day long. But I also love traveling alone. I’ve never felt so free or exhilarated as the day I spent in Paris, dwelling on Manet’sOlympia at the Musee d’Orsay as long as I liked, sitting on a bench in the Jardin de Luxembourg and eating a macaron, getting tremendously lost in the Cinquieme looking for my hotel. I get tingly just thinking about how wonderful that was.

              Ste. Chappelle, much prettier than any man-made thing has a right to be.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that summer lately, and on living in Europe. I’ve found myself thinking in French, or talking with a friend about what it’s like to work for the International Criminal Court, or missing the ability to wander freely to Torino or Lyon on a Saturday morning. Law school is ending, and the nasty bits of the end of the year are barreling toward me with a fearsome pace, so I’m sure the wanderlust is due in part to wanting to be anywhere but here at just this moment. I think I’m also a bit more susceptible to spring fever than most. Come the first day of April, I get antsy and impatient and starry-eyed and rebellious, and hopping on the next available flight to Charles de Gaulle with a hastily-packed bag seems like just the cure.

Instead, I found expression for my foreign yearnings by baking a loaf of brioche.

I’d made brioche once before, long ago, with absolutely no success. As a matter of fact, I had to make it twice this time, too. I don’t know much about yeast, to tell you the truth. Little living creatures in an envelope on the shelf? C’est strange. The second time around, however, things rose, and rose again, and four hours later, I had a seductively-scented, golden loaf on my counter. And no, that’s not a typo; this dough proofs twice for a total of three hours, and there’s a fair bit of handling that goes on in between if you’re not blessed with a stand mixer. This is the sort of recipe you take on when you’d like a bit of a challenge; when you’ve got a free afternoon, and want to throw yourself into a recipe that requires some precision. And then parade your loaf around town, slathered with honey or preserves or even more butter, proud of what you’ve crafted with your very own hands.

Since I did nothing, not a thing, to make this recipe my own, I’m going to send you to its source: Tartine Gourmande, and her mother’s recipe for brioche. I will share this word of wisdom: you will want to add flour after you’ve added both eggs. You will think, “Oh my, I’ve already futzed it up; it’s so sticky.” I implore you: don’t add flour. Knead, and knead, and knead, until it isn’t very sticky at all, and you can remove your hands from the boule with minimal trouble. I promise, that moment will come.  Also, don’t do what I did to kill my yeast, and leave your dough to rise in a much-too-warm oven. On my second go-through, I heated my oven up a wee bit while I was making the dough, and then turned it off well before I was through kneading, so it was only a bit warm when it was time for proofing.


Bon chance, mes petits.


not quite so challenging

I spent an awful lot of time buying butter last summer. Me and butter got to know each other in a very intimate way, in fact. Last summer, I found myself in a brand new country, where I didn’t speak the language, where I could barely make out the letters on the street signs, and where I couldn’t fill up one hand’s worth of fingers counting the people I knew. As a result of having plenty of free time and needing an escape, I decided to take on pies.

Yes, perhaps someone with a more solid head on her shoulders might have taken another tack. Perhaps she would have studied the language with abandon, or gone to every expat gathering she could find, or spent all her time exploring her new home. I did those things to a degree, of course. I took the bus to and from work which, believe me, is something you should find very impressive. I can still summon the right words to buy a kilo of cherries as well as explain to the gentleman at the fruit stand what sort of foreigner I am, exactly. I hiked up a couple mountains, stuck my toes in the Black sea, drank a fair bit of home-brewed wine offered to me with pride by those who brewed it.

But–and I don’t much like admitting this, but it’s time to accept—I’m a bit of a shy person. Each day seemed to be an opportunity for me to embarrass myself in a new way; by not putting my nouns and verbs in the right order and the market , or not understanding the taxicab driver when he asked me where I was going. I needed a place to hide, a place that was comfortable and familiar and manageable. I needed a place to take on challenges that were not quite so… challenging.

And so, the kitchen. and so, pies.

Up until then, I’d found pie dough and its ilk too intimidating to attempt. I’d watched my mother curse it every thanksgiving, frustrated at the difficulty of getting it to look good and taste good. I figured I’d stick to cookies and cakes. But, desperate for an excuse to spend time in the kitchen, I thought I’d finally man up and give it a go. I loaded up on gorgeous 82% butter and went to town, starting with Martha Stewart’s Pate Brisee recipe (this, dears, is not a bad place to start). Keeping butter chilled in 95º heat is no easy feat, so I modified the recipe to include a few extra rounds of chilling: get butter home from the market, chill; cube the butter, chill; cut the butter into the flour with a fork, chill; finish combining the ingredients, chill; roll out the dough, chill; and so on. I didn’t mind.

When I had the first crust ready to go into the oven, I learned a quirky little fact: our oven had no thermostat. Well, then. I took a guess, and it turned out to be a good one.

Pulling that first flaky yet sturdy shell out of the oven, I was totally hooked. Up until then, baking seemed a bit like math: 2 cups of flour+ 1 teaspoon of baking powder+12 oz. chocolate chips = cookies. no thinking required, no grace. Now, baking seemed a bit more like magic or art or akin to coaxing a shy animal out from behind the couch. you can’t move too fast, or too slow. if I’m dexterous and sly enough, I can gently rub this butter into this flour, and if I’m clever enough, I’ll combine it just enough so that it holds together and there are feathery sheets of butter  throughout the dough.

I couldn’t even guess at how many tarts I cranked out last summer, full of gorgeous local fruit and pastry cream. Now that I’ve got access to a full-size, more predictable American grocery store, and since there isn’t any of my favorite summer fruit in the grocery store just yet, I decided to play with the standard formula a bit, and use flavors I normally wouldn’t in a sweet dish.

I had some apples that were not being used, and an open bottle of white wine, and a hankerin’ to make a crust with cheddar cheese in it. And so, I went about picking out some base recipes.

I believe strongly in Deb. Deb does me right, almost without fail. After trying some others, I landed on Deb’s pie dough recipe as my go-to. I wanted a recipe for wine-soaked apples, and found a pie contest from three years ago on The Kitchn. And, I got my pastry cream recipe from The Kitchn, as well. Now, there are pastry creams with corn starch and ones with flour as thickeners. They both have their drawbacks, and I suppose I haven’t concluded which one I like more just yet, so I go back and forth. This time, I used flour.

Ok, enough yapping! Go make a tart! Go play with some butter! It’s totally unstoppable, and always makes me feel better. I bet it’ll make you feel better, too.

All butter, very flaky pie dough
From the wonderful Smitten Kitchenbut with my instructions

Makes enough dough for one double-, or two single-crust pies.

2 1/2 cups flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 sticks (8 ounces, 16 tablespoons or 1 cup) unsalted butter, very cold, cut into small cubes

Sift together the flour, sugar and salt. Skip the sugar if you’re making a savory crust. If you’re like me, you still haven’t gotten around to buying a pastry cutter, and get frustrated with the cutting-in-with-butter-knives method, so wash those mitts and use the ol’ fingers to rub the butter and flour together. As Deb says, visible butter is your friend, and leads to wonderful flakiness in the final product. If you need to, add some ice-cold water–not more than 1/2 a cup, just enough so that the dough sticks together. This dough doesn’t have to be plaster-strong; it can be a little bit crumbly at this point, because it’ll come together more when you roll it out.

When the dough holds together, split it in half. You can now add a half a cup of finely shredded cheddar or gruyere to one of the halves and mix it in a little. I used sharp cheddar. Then, make discs out of the two halves and wrap them in saran wrap, and stick ’em in the freezer for at least a half an hour, but longer is good, too.

When you’re ready to go, preheat the oven to 350º and let your dough soften up on the counter for a bit. Again, I keep forgetting I need a rolling pin, so I use a wine bottle. I also roll out the dough between two layers of saran wrap. When it’s a bit bigger than the tart pan, take off the top layer of saran wrap, hang it over the wine bottle saran-side down, and flip it onto the tart pan dough-side down. Press it in, line it with foil, and fill it with beans or pie weights or barley or etc. Bake for about 20 minutes, and then remove the foil and weights, so that it has a chance to brown a bit (you can even give it a cream/egg white brushing at this point to get it prettier). Bake for, oh, five more minutes, maybe ten; just keep your eye on it. Allow to cool, and admire at your handiwork.


Spiced Poached Apple Pie Filling
Loosely adapted from Best Pie Bakeoff # 26, Pear Gruyere Pie

2 pounds apples (the firm sort–braeburn worked well)
1 1/2 cups dry white wine
1/4 cup white sugar
1 1/2 Tbsp whiskey
3/4 cup water
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon clove
1 cinnamon stick (I used about a teaspoon of ground cinnamon, but I’d recommend the stick instead)
2 teaspoon cornstarch

Add sugar, wine, water, vanilla, cinnamon stick, nutmeg and clove into a large stock pot or dutch oven. Bring to a boil. Put an empty medium bowl into the freezer to chill.

Peel, core, and slice apples. Once liquid mixture has come to a boil add apples. Simmer for about 20 minutes or until the pears are tender.

Using a slotted spoon remove the apples from the poaching liquid and put them into the chilled bowl. Return the poaching liquid to a boil and reduce until you have about 1/4 cup of syrup. Add 2 teaspoons of sifted cornstarch to the syrup to thicken the syrup further. Pour the syrup into a measuring cup and chill.

Rosemary-infused Pastry Cream
Adapted from The Kitchn

1 1/2 cups whole milk or half-and-half (or some milk and heavy cream, like me)
1 1/2 Tbsp dry Rosemary
4 large egg yolks
1/3 – 1/2 cup sugar, to depending on how sweet you want it
1/4 cup flour (you can add more if you’d like it thicker, but it starts to get doughy with too much)
pinch of salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Bring the milk or cream and rosemary to a boil, and allow to boil for a few minutes, while monitoring closely and stirring. Strain out the rosemary and pitch it. Allow the milk to cool to touchably warm. Whisk together the yolks and sugar until pale yellow, and then whisk in the flour and salt.

When the milk mix is touchable, pour it in a steady stream into the yolk mix, while whisking constantly. Pour back into the saucepan.

Cook the mixture over medium heat, stirring constantly with your spoon so the bottom doesn’t scorch. It will quickly start to thicken to the consistency of pudding. When large steamy bubbles start to pop through the liquid, the pastry cream is nearly done.

Continue stirring for 1-2 minutes longer. Set the strainer over a clean bowl and strain the pastry cream to get out any lumps. Press a piece of plastic wrap against the surface of the pastry cream and refrigerate until you’re ready to use it.

To Assemble:

Pour the cooled pastry cream into the cooled tart shell. Arrange the apple slices as fancy pants as you like, or in a pile. It’ll still look pretty good. Pour the reduced poaching liquid over the top of the apples, and serve to happy guests.