Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Chez Panisse Almond Tart

I have been on the Chez Panisse kick lately.  Maybe it is all the ridiculously upscale recipes from Alice Waters books or my fascination with David Lebovitz and his blog, but I have been imagining myself a fancy pastry chef in a world famous restaurant (read - my kitchen).  As usual I decided to start with one of the more complex recipes, so complex in fact; it was taken off the Chez Panisse menu for being too much hassle.  I mean, you need to babysit this thing like an infant.  And in the restaurant they probably had to make dozens of these tarts each day, so as I imagine the returns were not worth the headaches.  Although it was one of the most beloved items on their menu, but really how much can you charge for a piece of cake? (Don’t answer that!)
Honestly, it is possibly the best desert on the planet.  Caramely, buttery, nutty and chewy, it is devilishly tricky to make.  The dough sticks and doesn’t roll no matter how chilled it is.  An exact oven time cannot be given as you have to check the tart every few seconds for just the right doneness.  A minute too late and the caramel is burnt, a minute too early and it is underdone.
I made this tart twice now, first time I overcooked it slightly and the second was slightly undercooked.  Until I get it just right, I actually prefer the overcooked version as it made the filling chewy and more cookie like.  Here is the recipe from David Lebovitz ( who used to work as a pastry chef in Chez Panisse by the way) with my comments.
Ingredients for the dough for a 9’ tart pan ( See note)
1 cup  flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 cup (4 oz,) chilled unsalted butter, cut into little cubes
1 tablespoon ice water
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon almond extract -  I added more, because how do you really measure out 1/8 of a tsp?  It will not spoil the party
Note: Now if you are like me, you may want to make a 12’ tart as you figure you can never have too much of a good thing.  In that case double the recipe.  You may have some dough left over, but it better than to run out without covering the form.
Mix the flour and sugar in a standing electric mixer or food processor.  Add the butter and  pulse until

the butter is in very small pieces, the size of rice. It should be pretty well-integrated with no large

visible chunks. Add the water and extracts and mix until the dough is smooth and comes together.

Press into a flat disk, wrap in plastic and chill thoroughly.  I actually found this particular dough before

covering the tart pan is much harder than with the soft dough.  You need to butter the tart pan very

well. Press the dough into a tart shell using your hand. 

The shell does not need to be perfect, just make sure it evenly distributed on the pan bottom and sides and that you do not have any tears.  Put the tart shell in the freezer and chill thoroughly. To bake the shell, preheat the oven to 375F. Bake the shell for 20-30 minutes, until it is set and light golden-brown.  Do not be tempted to cover with foil and fill with pie weights to blind bake.  This particular dough will shrink mercilessly from the steam.
For the tart filling
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 cup  sliced almonds
1 tsp almond extract
2 tsp Amareto ( optional)
To bake the tart, line the rack under the one you plan to use with a sheet of aluminum foil or place the tart pan on a cookie sheet covered with foil.  This thing bubbles like crazy in the oven before the caramel sets so any leaks will be very unpleasant.  Heat the cream, sugar, and salt in a big, wide heavy-duty pot until it begins to boil. Continue to cook and when it starts to foam up, remove it from the heat and stir in the almonds, the almond extract, and the liquor. Pour the filling into the shell.  It will look very liquid and like it will overflow.  Don’t panic, it will turn into deliciousness soon enough. Make sure there are no clumps or piles of almonds and that everything is evenly distributed, then put the filled tart shell into the oven. Every 10 minutes tap the top of the tart with a rubber spatula held diagonally.  This breaks up the uneven clump of sugar forming on the top.  Stop tapping as soon as the caramel starts to set.
From this point on, you need to check this tart every 2 – 3 min until the caramel is the color of coffee with milk and there no large pockets of white filling.  You may need to rotate it a few times so it browns evenly.

Good luck getting this thing out of the tart pan!
The tart is best the day it is made, however I stored mine covered with plastic on the counter for 2 days and it was just fine.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Home made cottage cheese

I grew up in the household which considered cottage cheese an ultimate super-food.  According to my mother and my grandmother, it could cure anything from a cold to Bubonic plague.  Not eating or not liking the cottage cheese was unacceptable; it was an offence that could only be equated to running off and joining a traveling circus.    I still have very vivid memories of my grandfather (well-educated and respected doctor) force feeding cottage cheese to the family dog.  What is good for the human must be good for the beast, don’t mind you that most dogs are lactose intolerant…
My mother mostly made her own cottage cheese but when she did not, we would go to the farmer market and browse and taste dozens until my mother found the one she liked.  The farmer’s market back in the Soviet Union was not truly a place for the farmer to sell their lives work.  Since all farming was centralized under the government, the folks at these markets sold what excess they grew in their tiny yards.  The cheese isle would consist of old ladies selling the cheese they made that morning, from the milk of their own cow and they usually had only a few pounds to sell.  Each was made the way they made cheese for generations, still smelling of the fresh cow’s milk.  I remember those round heads of cheese with the cheese cloth markings, slightly yellow and one so different from the next.  My mother would taste each one, and as wine connoisseur would make comments on the quality of the milk used, fattiness, flavor and the personal hygiene of the lady she was considering buying from.  She pointed out the dryness or excess wetness, overly prominent tanginess and plain sourness.  And so we went through what seemed like the endless isle of the heads of cottage cheese, smelling and tasting.  I hated it…
With all of my family’s romantic notions of the stuff, I grew up despising the taste, the smell and even the process of making cottage cheese.  No matter how served, with jam or honey or baked into little cakes, I hated it.  I grew up swearing that I would never touch the stuff when I am an adult.
Many years later, long after my mother passed, I was sharing a simple lunch with my than future father-in-law.  There was not many to choose from, some cottage cheese and some cooked pasta.  We made our plates, just plain hot pasta mixed with the cottage cheese, his with a bit of salt; mine with a bit of sugar.  The familiar taste hit me like a ton of bricks; it was the taste of my childhood, long forgotten and now very nostalgic and satisfying.  After that day, I gave the cottage cheese another chance.  I love it now; I make my own, having figured out how to vary the texture and the taste.  It makes for a great snack or breakfast and once in a while the look of cheese cloth marks on the round, creamy ball takes me back to my mother’s kitchen.

Makes about 2 lbs of cheese
¾ gallon organic whole milk (see note)
1 ½ cups of yogurt with live active cultures or the same amount of starter (keep reading).  important as it is the predominant flavor.  I like using organic, grass-fed whole milk, but you can substitute with 2% milk, just do not use skim.
Note:  The quality of the milk is 
Heat all the milk in a large pot, until hot but not boiling. 
Mix well with the yogurt or a starter and place in a large container.

 I like to use the Greek style yogurt as an initial starter, but you can use any kind of plain yogurt as long as the package indicates the presence of live active cultures.

Turn the oven light on and place the container with the milk mixture in your oven, directly next to the light for 24 hrs.  The heat from the lamp creates a constant temperature for the cultures to do their thing.  You can also wrap the container in an electric heating pad, set on the lowest setting and keep wrapped for 24 hrs.
After 24 hr, take the container out of the oven and stir.  You will have a great yogurt, which you can use as such if the cottage cheese is not your forte.  Just make sure to leave the last few cups and use as a starter for the next batch.
If you are indeed set out to make the cheese, place all but 2 cups of yogurt in a large pot over medium heat.  Save the remaining to 2 cups in the fridge as a starter for the next batch.  Heat the mixture until it begins to curdle and the whey begins to separate.  This usually happens around the boiling point.  Do not let the mixture boil and remember the longer you keep it on the heat, the more the curdles will separate and the drier the cheese will be.

Strain into a colander lined with 2 layers of cheese cloth

Tighten the cheese cloth around the mixture and let it drain. 

You can softly press on the cheese to drain more whey out;

this will yield a drier, studier cheese, similar to pot cheese. 

Which is how I make mine, on the drier side. 

You can hang the cheese for a few hours and let it drain under its own weight. 

Once drained, it will keep in the fridge for up to a week to 10 days.  Use in recipes that call for ricotta, serve on its own with jam or honey or spread on crackers with a some cucumbers, radishes and a sprinkle of coarse salt.
Enjoy and take pride in the fact that you just made cheese!

My grandparent’s version of breakfast of champions.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Mustard Tart

Whoever advocates the local in-season eating must live in California, where such a is actually possible.  In mid-March, around here in New Jersey, the only local and in-season thing is my desire for this winter to end.  I long to see something fresh and appealing at the farm market.  This lack of an appealing produce is almost depressing and is almost destroying my cooking inspirations.   So what does one do in the middle of this muddy time, before the trees bloom and there is a sweet scent of spring in the air?  One goes to the pantry for inspiration. 
I have been in love with the book I bought a few months ago that I mentioned on this blog before.  “Around my French table” By Dorie Greenspan has become my most beloved cook book.  Not only for the amazing recipes but for creative ideas and clever tid-bits of personal anecdotes.  I cannot wait for summer ingredients, so that I can start on some of the more appealing recipes.  I am tempted to cook though the whole book, page by page, recipe by recipe, and then blog about it… although I believe that is no longer an original idea.
Back at the pantry, as I was taking stock of what I have (and according to my husband, I have everything we would need to survive a year worth of natural disasters)… I saw very nice French grainy mustard that I mail-ordered.  French are very serious about their mustard and it is a worthy splurge.  The only mustard that a French cook would consider must be bring-a-tear –to-your-eye-fresh and pungent.   Since mustard is such a staple in classical French cuisine, it is an ingredient that one cannot compromise on.
There is a great recipe for a mustard tart in the “Around my French Table” book.  This tart is surprisingly creamy, delicious, piquant and comforting.  It makes a great appetizer course or even a lunch served with a simple side salad.  From the overwhelming success of serving it one, it will sure to become a staple in my kitchen.  Traditionally, this tart is made with tomatoes, but the book suggests using carrots and leeks instead.  Thank god, as the tomatoes now taste worse than air…
The tart is best the same day it is made and can be served warm or at room temperature.  I would not recommend serving it cold, as the entire aroma would be lost.
I probably have dozens of recipes for tart dough, sweet and savory, flaky, tender, sturdy and soft…  For this tart I used the recommended crust recipe and found it to be very fitting.  The egg in the dough accentuates the eggs in the filling and the crust is very tender and flaky.
For the tart crust:                                                                                                  
1 ¼ cup of all-purpose flour
1 tsp sugar
½ tsp salt
6 tbs of very cold butter
1 egg
1 tsp cold water

For the Tart filling:
1 Large Carrot trimmed, peeled and cut into matchsticks
2 Small leeks ( white parts only), cleaned and cut into matchsticks
2 rosemary springs
3 large eggs
6 tbs of heavy cream or cream fraiche
2 tbs of Dijon Mustard
2 tbs of French grainy mustard
Fleur de sel or any other coarse salt

Prepare the tart shell.  In the food processor fitted with a blade, combine the flour, sugar and salt and pulse a few times.  Add the cubed butter and pulse to incorporate.  The mixture will resemble coarse corn meal.  Add the egg and if the dough does not come together into a ball, add the ice water.  Shape into a disk, wrap in plastic and refrigerate for at least an hour.  At this point the dough can be kept in the fridge for a few days or in the freezer for a very long time. 
When ready to bake, butter a 9 inch tart pan with removable bottom.  Roll out the dough no thicker than ¼ of an inch and press it firmly into the tart pan.  Try not to stretch the dough or it will shrink when baked.  Trim the excess and patch up any tears by pinching the dough together with your fingertips.
Let the tart shell cool it’s heels in the freezer for 20 min or so, while you are preheating the oven to 400F.  To partially bake the shell, cover with a buttered piece of foil, fill with pie weights or dried beans and bake for 20 min.  Remove the foil and the beans and bake another 5-6 min until the crust is slightly golden but not to dark.  Remove the tart shell and let cool on the wire rack without taking it out of the form.
To make the filling, steam the carrot and leek matchsticks for a few minutes until they are slightly tender.  Mix the eggs, cream and mustards and add salt to taste.  French mustards tend to be salty so taste before you add it.  Also, the amount of mustard can be adjusted to taste.
Arrange the steamed carrots and leeks on the bottom of the pre-baked shell.  Pour in the egg and mustard mixture and bake at 425F for about 30 min, or until the center is golden and puffy and the knife inserted into a center comes out clean. 

Let cool slightly before removing the tart pan and cutting.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Beer-Batter fried chicken and Crispy Baked Mashed Potatoes

The best fried chicken I ever had came from the unlikeliest source – my mother.  Born and raised in Ukraine, my mother never heard of southern home-style cooking, didn’t know the origins of the dish and probably didn’t have any idea what the ideal fried chicken should look or taste like.  She made it her way and it was the crispiest, juiciest, perfectly seasoned, finger licking goodness. 
The dish came to the Southern United States with the Scottish immigrants, who had a tradition of frying pieces of chicken in fat, as oppose to their British counterparts who boiled or baked their chickens.  There are hundreds of recipes out there for a “traditional southern chicken”, some call for buttermilk and flour, some for batter; some use the deep fryer and some advice to pan fry.  My mother did it by the book, although I am sure she didn’t have any idea of what that book was.
It was called, if literally translated, “Chicken in batter” in our house.   I remember my mother dipping the skinless, bone in chicken pieces in thin, lumpy batter and dropping them into a huge cast iron oil bath of a skillet.  I tried to re-create that perfect batter on many occasions, but my chicken never came out as crispy or good as hers was.  It took an accident to make this childhood memory real.
I was skillet frying some sea-bass and thinking of my upcoming trip to the U.K., as well as the beer-food-fest I promised my husband.  My thoughts appropriately drifted toward pub fare and I remembered that I had a few bottles of dark stout in the basement, which according to my husband, where not that good.  I decided to experiment and mixed some flour, sea food spice blend, salt and beer until I had a thin, lumpy batter.  When the first piece of fish was fried and tasted, I knew I hit the jackpot. 
I must confess that I do not fry anything often.  I am not a fan of grease for many reasons, my waistline mostly, but also the mess in the kitchen.  The mess is the main reason why I have not made doughnuts or fried desert ravioli.  But having just figured out the batter recipe and having two farm-fresh chickens in the fridge, I decided to give it a go.
The chicken came out just how I remembered it, my mother would be proud.  Juicy and perfectly cooked on the inside, crispy, crunchy, salty on the outside.  Pure haven!  Served with crispy baked mashed potatoes and a little simple salad (you got to have the salad to counteract the grease!), it will be a meal I will not soon forget.  And the batter recipe is getting written down, so that when the time comes, my daughter will not need to rely on memory alone.

Beer-Batter fried chicken and Crispy Baked Mashed Potatoes.
For the Chicken.
A whole chicken cut up into small pieces ( or Southern style) at the joints.  Bone-in and skin removed.
2 Cups of buttermilk
Salt, pepper
Smoked Paprika
Poultry seasoning (I use Montreal Grill Chicken Seasoning)
Peanut oil for frying (You can use any other oil that has a high smoking point, such as sunflower, soy or canola, but I find that the peanut oil is a little more aroma neutral )
For the Batter
2 Cups of all-purpose flour
1 bottle of beer ( I used a mild stout, which is a darker beer)
1 tbs of a kosher salt
½ tbs of poultry seasoning

For the Crispy – baked Mash potatoes
2 lbs of potatoes, peeled
4 tablespoons butter, plus more for greasing the tins
½ cup of cream or milk
4 strips of bacon
1 cup of shredded parmesan
3 tablespoons of bread crumbs
Salt, pepper

Marinate the chicken by seasoning with salt, pepper, smoked paprika and poultry seasoning.  Toss with buttermilk, making sure each piece is coated evenly, cover and refrigerate for a few hours, ideally overnight.

When ready to cook, pat the chicken dry and let it come to room temperature.  In a heavy cast iron skillet heat the at least 1 ½ inches of oil.  Check the oil temperature with a reliable digital thermometer; you are looking for a 340F – 350F frying range.

Prepare the batter by mixing the four, poultry seasoning and salt.  Add the beer, a little at a time, mixing the batter by hand.  Do not over-mix; you should end up with a thin, lumpy consistency.

Coat the chicken evenly in batter and fry about 4 min on each side or until golden and crispy and cooked through.

Couple of advise points:
1. Do not over-crowed the pan.  The chicken will be steaming rather than frying
2. Do use the splatter screen.  You will thank me later
3. Your stove’s flame adjustment knob is your friend.  Remember, the oil will rapidly loose it’s temperature as soon as you add the chicken, so keep fidgeting with the know to keep the temperature constant.
4.  Drain on the cooling rack placed over the tray to catch all the extra oil dripping.

These potatoes make a great side dish or in my case a main course or a snack around the clock.  I can eat these exclusively for the rest of my life and not miss a thing…
Preheat the oven to 375F.  Cover the peeled and quartered potatoes with cold water in a large pot and bring to a boil.  Once boiled, salt lightly and simmer until just fork tender.  Do not overcook; the potatoes should be al dente.
While the potatoes are cooking, crisp up the bacon by either baking on a rack in 425F oven, frying it up or use the neatest trick my husband taught me.  Place the bacon in single layer between a generous amount of paper towels and microwave on high for about 3 minutes or until crispy.  Wola! No mess, no grease! Perfectly cooked bacon in 3 minutes!
Add 2 tablespoons of butter and cream and mash the potatoes to desired consistency ( I like mine with a bit of texture).  Stir in ¼ cup of parmesan crumbled up bacon.  Check for seasoning and add salt if needed.  Grease 8 muffin tins with butter.  Fill each tin with Mashed potatoes and top with remaining parmesan cheese.  Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter and stir in the breadcrumbs.  Top each tin with the breadcrumb mixture.

Bake for about 30 -35 min or until the tops are golden brown and crispy.

Can you smell this?  You can't?  To Bad... go make your own!