Thursday, March 27, 2014

Virtues of French Mustard and a new twist on Beef bourguignon

I am mourning my not-to-be-this-year trip to Provence France.  I had this grand dream that I will be eating and drinking my way through a French farm country on my big birthday this year… I could almost taste it, a nursing a whisper of rosé wine in a sunlit glass as I linger at my four hour French lunch in a main square of some medieval village…  Not this year, perhaps never, perhaps someday in a distant future… I am sad, it was a lovely dream.

And while I wait for the lovely dream in years to come, my annual trip to Quebec will just have to do.  Once a year trip to French Canada supermarkets will just have to do to stock up on French culinary inspiration and mustard.  If I could buy this stuff by the gallon, I would, there is probably not a better condiment in the world than the real French Mustard.  It goes far beyond your deli meat or hot dog chaser; it is the ultimate flavor enhancer to just about everything.

If you don’t live anywhere near where it sold ( and I have not the real deal anywhere but in Canada and France), you can certainly order this mustard on-line.

Lovely, pungent and salty, I find a hundred and one way to use it… from making a lovely mustard tart ( which is essentially a quiche flavored with lots and lots of French Mustard, to using it in vinaigrette, pork belly braises and as a flavoring for homemade sausage.

Here are a few examples, but feel free to  experiment… any savory dish that you would add salt to could possibly benefit from a little mustard twist… Just a word of caution, French mustard is extremely salty, so use salt very sparingly or better season after you taste. 

When cooking pork chops add French Mustard to the marinade, than sauté apples and onions dressed with mustard in a little butter and use as chutney for the chops.

Make endless variety of vinaigrette by combining equal amounts of French Mustard, fruit preserves ( raspberry and orange are my favorites) with red wine vinegar and olive oil, whisk well and dress any salad.

Crust the duck breasts in honey and mustard before searing them.

When making egg or chicken salad, mix in some French Mustard with the mayo.

Next time you make a frittata add just a bit to the eggs before baking them

And my personal favorite… a twist on Beef bourguignon.  Stir 2 or 3 or 4 heaping spoonful’s in to the brazing liquid and watch an old classic become just a bit tastier…..

I am not going to give a full recipe for Beef bourguignon here, if you want a good one just stick to good old Julia Child recipe, its perfect, there is nothing to change except stir a few tablespoons of French Mustard into the mix… here is the link to the classic… and here are fun how to pictures….

Sear some bacon or panchetta 

  dry the meat with paper towels, and don't overcrowd the pan otherwise you will not get a nice sear color

Peel some pearl onions ( I swear, when I go to hell, this is exactly what I will be doing for eternity) 

Just like every Jewish recipe begins with 100 walnuts, every French recipe begins with Meripox

Blister the mushrooms

Make a bouquet garni with parsley,thyme and rosemary

Take in the aroma

if I close my eyes and sip rose wine I can be fooled, New Jersey de Provence.... is a new place to be....

Friday, March 7, 2014

The battle of two Napoleons

I have been on a vintage recipe kick, but not just for fun.  Old recipes mean traditions that must be preserved and I have a responsibility to carry them to future generations.  Just this month we celebrated birthdays for ladies who’s legacy I must preserve.  My husband’s grandmother ( Baba) turned 92 and my great-aunt (Lubochka) turned 85.  And these two amazing ladies are still baking …( I am knocking on everything in sight, spitting over both shoulders, may they be here with us forever).  They both have the same specialty cake, the great Napoleon.  Both delicious and widely different… but later about that.

Napoleon is a French Pastry ( in France known as mille-feuille or “thousand leafs”) which basically stacks layers of flaky pastry with some kind of layers in the middle.  Traditionally it is a vanilla custard cream but anything stacked is really passing for Napoleon’s these days.  If you are from Russia, it was a staple of every festive table and every family had one member (usually grandmother or aunt) who baked it.  It was a perfected specialty deserving much admiration.  It is a taste of grandmother’s Napoleon that almost every Russian child holds in their memory and the generation who baked them is nearing  sunset. 

There are probably a thousand ways to make a Napoleon, but in my family, there are only two.  My husband grew up with Baba’s napoleon and will not accept anything else; I grew up with Lubochka’s and to this day, consider it the true thing.  And as I sat drinking to their health this month, I realized that they will not be here forever, that the perfection of both their Napoleons must be carried forward.  That I am the only one who has any interest in continuing the tradition and that I must learn how to bake them now, while they can still walk me through their recipes. 

You got to give it to the 92 year old Baba, when I called her for a recipe, she told me “Why you going to bother, I can make it for you if you want..”  (I want to be just like her when I grow old.) .  As I talk to them and wrote down the recipes, I laughed… these two ladies are so protective of their own Napoleon’s, each has tremendous respect for another, but when the cake is concerned -  it’s a cat fight. Each insists that hers is the “true” recipe and must be made exactly her way and “god forbid” not the way the other one makes it.  I smirked and went on writing.

Also, between the both of them, they break about a dozen pastry rules, but I decided to keep my opinions to myself this time and both cakes were made exactly how they are making them…sacrilegious pastry doing and all. After all they have been doing it for 50+ years…if Escoffier didn’t strike them down with lightning yet, I doubt he will bother now.

Another problem I ran into, is the unit of measure.  They use kitchen cups and soup spoons and god knows what else…so I had to guess at approximate size of their coffee cups, trying desperately to remember what I saw in their cupboards.  The question “how big is the cup you use?” was met with a shrug and “a regular cup not too big, not to small” for an answer… I had my work cut out for me.

One swears by butter for pastry, the other sent me on a wild goose chase for Israeli margarine.  Widely different proportions of all ingredients for the dough.  Baba makes a classic pastry custard cream, but she uses flour to thicken it (major no-no, but it works), Lubochka uses whole eggs for her pastry cream (I almost cried it is so wrong) and mixes it with whipped buttercream.  Even the shapes are different, Baba makes her Napoleon round where Lubochka’s is a classic square shape.  The only thing they agree on is the addition of vinegar to the dough which is a very old fashioned technique of producing a flakier dough.  In all my reading and studying I never came across this trick, but guess what, these old timers still have tricks up their sleeves that I don’t know… I am impressed. 

I obeyed both recipes to a “t”, I doubt I will again, I will probably make small modifications to each when I bake them again and tonight I have two beautiful Napoleons for my friends to enjoy.  But I will not accept votes for one or the other, both are equally precious to me and will be carried forward in their widely different ways.

Baba’s Napoleon:

For the Dough:

Makes about 9-10 layers

200 grams butter – ice cold and cubed

2 – 2 ½ cups of flour

A pinch of salt

¾ cup of ice water

¼ cup of white vinegar

Extra flour for rolling

For the cream

5 cups of milk

5 egg yolk

1 cup sugar

4 tbs of flour

In a food processor or with a pastry cutter, cut the butter into the flour until it resembles coarse cornmeal.  Add salt.  Mix water and vinegar together and add to the dough until just combined into a ball.  The dough will be very sticky.  Shape into a log, wrap in plastic and refrigerate overnight.

When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 400F.  Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.  Divide the dough into 9 or 10 equal portions.  Roll each portion using lots of flour ( this dough sticks like crazy) and keeping the rest of the dough in the fridge.  You are looking for very thin layers, almost paper like.  Before baking, punch with a fork so the dough does not bubble too much.  Bake for 8 -12 minutes or until just starting to brown. 
If few layers don’t turn out perfectly or rip don’t worry, bake them anyway, you will need a few extras for the crunchy toping.

The layers can be made a few days ahead of assembling the cake.

Make the cream.  Heat 4 cups of milk until hot but not boiling.  Whisk the egg yolk with sugar until sugar dissolves and yolks a light and fluffy, add the remaining cup of cold milk and flour, whisk to combine. 
Add the hot milk a tiny bit at a time while whisking the egg mixture vigorously, you do not want to make scrambled eggs.  When most of the hot milk has been incorporated put the mixture back into the pot and cook on medium heat stirring constantly with a wooden spoon until the mixture thickens.  Do not let it boil.  Transfer to a fridge safe container, press plastic directly on to so no “skin” develops  and let cool overnight. 

When ready to assemble, alternate each pastry layer with cream. 
The last ( top) layer should be covered with cream as well as the sides.  Crumble remaining layers over the top and sides.  Refrigerate for at least 24 hrs before serving.

Lubochka’s Napoleon

Makes about 8 layers

500 g margarine ice cold and cubed

5 ½ cups of flour

A pinch of salt

1 ¼ cup of ice water + one egg beaten + 3 tbs white vinegar

More flour for rolling

For the cream

5 whole eggs

1 2/3 cups of sugar divided

1 tsp vanilla extract

1 tsp cognac

450 g of butter at room temperature

2 cups milk

The technique for making the dough and baking the layers is exactly the same, except I found they bake better at higher temperature -  415 – 420F.

To make the cream, whisk the eggs with half the sugar, add vanilla and cognac.  Heat the milk, but don’t boil it.  Temper the egg mixture by slowly whisking in the hot milk, transfer back to the pot and cook on medium heat stirring constantly until thickens.  Cool fully.

Whisk the butter and remaining sugar until pale yellow and fluffy.  Add the custard mixture to the butter cream one spoonful at a time until fully incorporated.

Assemble the Napoleon the same way as above, alternate the layers with cream, top with crumbled up remaining layers, refrigerate overnight before serving.

And may the one that reminds you most of your childhood win! 

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Sausage and roasted chickpea frieze salad with lemon vinaigrette

Anyone who eats at my house always assumes that everything I attempt comes out right every time.  What a joke!  I have a list of bloopers a mile long and one of these days I will take some photos of my little kitchen disasters and make a post out of it.  I rarely burn anything, unless you count caramel, which I burn every single time, but I ruin things all the time… For example, I have never been able to make buttercream without it separating, or make a perfect meringue without it going soggy.  Some things go straight from the stove top to the garbage, do not stop and taste, and do not collect 200 dollars….  More often, I will try to pass things off as if they came out exactly how I intended… interestingly enough, it works almost always.  When something drops to the floor I immediately think of Julia Child and look around if anyone saw it, if not, dust it, rinse it, serve it and pretend that nothing happened.

A few weeks ago, I had a party for my now very teenage son, and having been on a huge kick for vintage Soviet recipes I tried to make a Kiev cake.  I will save the explanation of what it actually is for when I make it right and post it, for now, all you need to know that I have never…. Ever… ever… had this much trouble with any cake.   I found a great base recipe online, not the true thing but close enough; do you think I followed it?  Like my mother used to say “ I thought I was smarter than the choo choo train”.  I “loosely” followed directions (meaning I did not follow them at all), and then tried to salvage the situation at every turn.  My Meringue was soggy, my filling was tight, my cake was slightly lopsided, but guesses what, it got eaten… every bit of it…. And I learned from my mistakes so the recipe will get refined, tested and posted… I promise.
See... lopsided...

I do have sheer moments of brilliance, though… and most of the time when I am not even trying.  Last weekend I was cooking out of my freezer… ( I get very surprised by the things I find there, I am a food hoarder, so if I freeze a lot of interesting things).  I found the boudin blanc sausage I made for Thanksgiving (I froze what I didn't use)and  duck fat (apparently I had a lot of it, didn't even know).  So I thought salad, how awesome it would be to create a salad that is deliciously unhealthy, but decadent.  And here came the sheer moment of brilliance….salty, nutty, fatty with something light, fresh and acidic… And the star was born, Sausage and roasted chickpea frisee salad with lemon vinaigrette. 

This would make a wonderful side dish to something light like a pan seared flaky fish or even a grilled chicken breast. 

 Sausage and roasted chickpea frieze salad with lemon vinaigrette

1 Can of chickpeas rinsed and dried on paper towels
¾ lb of mild sausage meat… I had my attempt at boudin blanc, but any sweet Italian sausage would do just fine
2 cups of small button mushrooms, I used the kind you find at the Asian market ( sorry, don’t know what they are called) but any tiny mushrooms would do
1 ½ tbs of duck fat
A pinch of cayenne pepper
A pinch of curry powder
2 heads of Frisee lettuce roughly chopped
1 cup watercress leaves
¼ cup dried cherries or cranberries
Juice of one lemon
1 tsp of white wine vinegar
1 tsp French grainy mustard or Dijon
1 tsp sugar
2/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
Salt and Pepper

Preheat the oven to 425F.  On a baking sheet spread the chickpeas, season with salt, curry powder and cayenne pepper.  Roast for 15 -2o min until the chickpeas are toasted gold brown and feel dry.

In a skillet, melt the duck fat.  Add the chopped sausage meat and cook until the sausage is crispy.  Lower the heat slightly and add the mushrooms.  Cook until the mushrooms are well browned.  Take off the heat and season with salt and pepper. 

Make the vinaigrette, whisk the lemon juice, vinegar, mustard, salt, pepper and sugar until the sugar and salt dissolve.  Slowly whisk in the olive oil until the mixture comes together.  The dressing should be very acidic (you will need it to cut through the fatness of the sausage and duck fat). 

To assemble the salad, add the chickpeas to the skillet with sausage and mushrooms and warm through.  The mixture should be warm but not piping hot.  Toss the frisee and watercress with the vinaigrette, dried cherries and the sausage mixture.  The hot temperature of the sausage and mushrooms will wilt the lettuce slightly. 

Dig in and don’t even try to pretend that this salad is low in calories… not all things should, sometimes you deserve a little duck fat…. Don’t be ashamed…just run an extra mile tomorrow (or not).

Friday, January 31, 2014

Sautéed spicy Green Beans with Hazelnuts

I have been feeling like a supermarket version of the “Dear Abby” advice column.  I don’t know how often this happens to other people who are good cooks, but it is happening to me constantly, random people just turn to me and ask me…”How do you cook that?” everywhere.  At the farm store, at the fish counter, everywhere….  It is not like I am wearing a sign “I am a good cook, free advice here..”, neither do I make eye contact with people or god forbid smile at them… when I shop, I prefer to do it quickly, efficiently and with the least amount of interruptions… so I don’t know why people feel they can check out the contents of my cart, point to Kefir and ask “What do you do with that?”.  And here is the thing, I don’t mind, these off the cuff questions actually flatter me and I go into a lengthy recipe descriptions and poor people are probably no longer happy about the engagement….

What strikes me as interesting is that most people have no idea how to cook simple staples.  I get it that someone may need advice on how to cook squid or a whole goose, but mostly people ask about basic things.  Recently a Russian lady surveyed a big bag of sweet potatoes in my cart and asked what I do with them.  I didn’t want to admit that most often I buy sweet potatoes because my dogs love them, so I happily rattled off a dozen recipes for her and wondered if she will ever try and cook any of them.  She than pointed to Kale and asked what it was…so, I got on my horse and gave her a quick lecture on the virtues of Kale.  I think she is not coming back to that store ever again for fear of meeting me… her own fault, she started it. 
All these questions made me think of doing a post on my favorite side dish and a simple thing that everyone should know how to cook…green beans.  They are quick, easy, good for you and if done right delicious.  And if someone doesn’t like them it means somewhere in their lives they encountered the canned version which can turn even the most stoic stomach.

There are two types of green beans out there, the fatter, longer version and the Haricot Vert , which are also called French green beans, that are very thin and a bit more delicate.  I like the later just because I find them pretties, but really, there is not much difference in taste.

Sautéed spicy Green Beans with Hazelnuts

I lb of Green Beans ( Or Haricot Verts) washed and trimmed
3 Cloves of Garlic Minced
¼ tsp of red pepper flakes ( optional, or more if you want things spicier)
¼ cup of toasted hazelnuts roughly chopped
½ tbs of olive oil
Hazelnut oil (optional)
Salt to taste

Boil a large pot of water and salt it liberally, like you do pasta water.  Boil the green beans for no longer than 1 minute and immediately transfer to an ice bath.  This will preserve the crisp and color.

Pat dry with paper towels.  Heat a large skillet with olive oil to medium heat; toss in the garlic, pepper flakes and hazelnuts and sauté for 30 seconds.  Add the green beans and toss for another 30 seconds.  Taste and see if any salt is needed, if you salted the water enough, the green beans should be properly seasoned.  Transfer to a platter, drizzle with a bit of hazelnut or extra virgin olive oil and season with sea salt or Fleur De Sel if necessary.

These can stay perfectly crisp and tasty in the fridge for up to 3 days, just reheat in the microwave.  Not a bad simple staple to have on hand for a side dish.

Monday, January 20, 2014

"Kartoshka" Pastry

I did not abandon my blog, I just didn't have a single free moment in the last month.  Before the  New Year, I was too busy cooking to blog about it and after the New Year, I was nursing a slightly chopped thumb (let’s just say dull knives and alcohol should not be mixed).  So now with a fresh scar and newly minted inspiration, I can’t wait to get to cooking and writing again.
I recently came across a cook book advertising refreshed vintage recipes and it got me thinking, what makes a recipe vintage?  Are vintage recipes fads of yesteryear, where classics stand the test of time?  But even classics are constantly reinvented and refreshed with a modern spin, so why do we still call them "classic"?  This book claimed to put fresh spin on such things as macaroni and cheese, yeah, right, like that dish can be call "vintage" with every chef out there constantly reinventing it with lobsters, truffles and gold flakes.  What about cake pops or cupcakes, which are now a forgotten fad, overtaken by a cronut (this one I would like to make "vintage" right now) are they vintage yet, or do they need to be wiped off the memory of the whole generation to become old-fashioned? 
Vintage food is just like your grandmother’s lace and pearls, just waiting to be re-discovered and fashionable again. There is only one problem, often, no one is around anymore to remember what these vintage dishes were like… exactly.   People still remember eating a particular dish but no one can agree on exactly how to cook it or what exactly it is supposed to taste like.  I got one of those vintage dishes in mind to tackle and so I decided to start the year with something old.

There is a Russian pastry called "Kartoshka", which means "potatoes".  I believe it is Russian, or to be exact Soviet in origin as I have never came across anything similar in any of the master pastry books.  It is meant to be made with sub-par ingredients easily found in Soviet era shops such as breadcrumbs, rum essence and chocolate substitute.  But according to legends told by grandmas it was not always that way.  These tales were told in tiny kitchens of mass-produced apartments, in voices hushed by the fear of being labeled a dissident.  Only dissidents would discuss the times of ‘Before”.   Before all food disappeared from the stores, before "kartoshka" started tasting like sawdust it was rumored to be the delicate indulgence made with good cocoa, brandy and real whipped butter.  If done right it has the perfect balance of sweetness, booze and chocolate.  And if the taste is hard enough to get right, the texture is even harder.... It is supposed to be perfect... Whatever that means.
No one in my generation knows what it supposed to taste or feel like.  We taste the dozens of varieties offered by every Russian bakery and can only agree that even the good tasting ones are not exactly "IT".  Even my mother's generation didn't quite know.  But i remember she tried to re- create it using my grandmothers taste buds memory as her guide.  I was very young so I don't remember the process or the taste but I do have her scribbled notes and her pastry books so at least something to go on.  I am not sure how I will know if I succeed but certainly a few tasters can be found around here.  And if I do succeed, generations of my family will benefit from this resurrected vintage recipe.
"Kartoshka" is not a baked desert, the pastries are rolled and then refrigerated to set up. And you have to start with a staple of Soviet desert products - dry vanilla bread. 
If you live in a 50 mile radius of a Russian grocery I suggest you go buy some, it is worth the trip, because the process of making vanilla bread and then drying it just to crumble it into breadcrumbs is probably not worth any desert, no matter how heavenly.  The best substitute for the vanilla bread crumbs is store bought angel food cake (try to find one that is not too sweet), slice it thinly and dry it in a 300F oven for about 20 min.  Than zap it in the food processor to make the crumbs.
Secondly you will need good cocoa powder and chocolate.  And most importantly booze.  Kartoshka  can be made with brandy or cognac but I didn’t have any so I used a combination of bourbon and very good dark rum.
 This recipe will make about 15 golf size pasties.


2.5 cups of vanilla bread or dried angel food cake crumbs

1/3 cup walnuts zapped in the food processor so they are as fine as the bread crumbs

2.5 tbs of good cocoa powder ( not Dutched) + more for dusting

1 cup half and half

4 oz of butter

1 cup brown sugar

Pinch of salt

½ cup semi-sweet or bitter-sweet (or mix) chocolate chips or baking chocolate

¼ cup of sweetened condensed milk

2 tbs burbon

1/3 cup dark rum

In a sauce pan combine half-and-half, brown sugar and salt and heat until sugar just dissolves.  Add the butter and melt over the low heat.  When butter if fully melted, stir in the chocolate and whisk until it is fully melted.  Take off the heat and let cool slightly.  Stir in the condensed milk.

Combine the bread crumbs, nuts and cocoa powder in the food processor and pulse a few times so that the mixture is even. 

Place the mixture in a large bowl. 

Add liquor to the half-and-half / chocolate mixture, stir well.  Slowly pour about half of the liquid over the breadcrumb mixture and stir until just incorporated.  

Add the rest of the mixture in small dozes until your batter is very soft but can still be shaped into a ball and hold its shape. Form small, golf size balls with your hands and place them on a cookie sheet covered with parchment.  
Cover with plastic and refrigerate for a few hours but better overnight.  When ready to serve dust with a little cocoa powder and bring to room temperature.

I think I might just go on a vintage recipe quest, those long forgotten Russian books look mighty interesting all of a sudden….