Saturday, July 16, 2016

A Fool for Sour Cherries

“Tragic,” my fellow-cook Anne said.

Tragic to us is what I did the other day.  I drove to Little Compton for a visit, going from one friend to another. On the way, I stopped at the Fruit Lady’s, and to my surprise, she still had sour cherries: living nearly an hour away on the other side of the bay, and being very busy in June and early July, I have missed them this year. So I was thrilled to see them.

There was only one pint, though, which I bought along with three colors of currants, and asked if there would be more later in the day: they put the fruit out twice a day.  The Fruit Lady makes no promises, but after stopping at Walkers on the way out for corn (gone—went to Karla for that and some fresh garlic) and lettuce and real cream (success), I stopped at the Fruit Lady’s on the way out and there, on the stand, were two pints!  Waiting for ME! I snatched them up, together with a cup of raspberries (I’d bought the currants and raspberries in the morning), and went to pay. Fruit Lady husband/farmer, Dick, was there, and though we’d spoken at length in the morning, we struck up a conversation again. I talked while rummaging around for more cash and bagging up my purchases, eager to get on the road back through Newport before the traffic got really bad. I hit the road, happy.

At home, I unloaded my treasures of lettuce, cream, milk, corn, garlic, some discounted perennials, currants, raspberries, and….cherries? Where are the rest of my cherries??

Left. Lost. A fool. Ergo: Tragic.

But I did have my one pint. Not enough for a pie, but still. What to make? A batch of cocktail cherries? Some little turnovers? Some of my favorite jam? I decided—it seemed fitting—on a fool. I had that wonderful cream, after all, and I could do a semblance of a cherry pie filling for the fruit.

It was trash day, and while the filling was doing its quick cooking on the stove, I did my usual survey of the refrigerator and freezer to see what, if anything, needed to go.  And there, lying right at the top of the freezer drawer, tightly wrapped, was something I’d forgotten about: a single layer of Mrs. Lincoln’s sponge cake . So maybe I’m just a trifle of a fool, after all.

Sour Cherry Fool or Trifle

You can make a close facsimile of a fool with just the cherries and cream, or turn it into a close relative of a trifle with the added cake.  A fool is usually made with fresh fruit, and a trifle with custard, but these are close enough. The trifle is surprisingly light and refreshing—a nice summer dessert.  This would be good with blueberries treated similarly.

2 c sour cherries, pitted
½ cup sugar
juice of ¼ lemon
1/8 tea cardamom
dash cinnamon
dash salt
1 ½ T corn starch
1 cup fresh, high-fat heavy cream
2 T + 2 tea sugar
½ tea vanilla

1 thin layer homemade sponge cake, or 1 pkg lady fingers
¼-1/3 cup white wine
2 T rhubarb or other fresh red-fruit syrup (optional)

For the cherries:

Place the cherries, sugar, lemon juice, spices, salt, and cornstarch into a heavy aluminum 2-qt saucepan.  Turn the heat on low, and after the sugar has begun to melt and the cherries to throw off liquid, turn the heat to medium-high and cook, stirring occasionally, until thickened. This will take no more than 5 minutes; do not overcook. Cool to room temperature.

For the whipped cream:

Beat the cream with the sugar and vanilla until it forms soft (not stiff) peaks.

To assemble:
In a pretty bowl, preferably glass, make layers, beginning and ending with the cherries, as follows:

1. Tear about a third of the sponge into pieces and fit them around the dish fairly snugly. Sprinkle with a little of the syrup and the wine.

2. Spread a layer of whipped cream to cover (a little less than 1/3).

3. Spread about 1/3 of the cherry mixture over the cream, not quite to the edges. 

4. Repeat. You should have a little whipped cream left over for garnish if desired.  Layers will not be as visible as in a trifle made with firm custard, but will be nice when scooped out. Cover and chill for  3-6 hrs.   

Remove from the refrigerator about 10-15 minutes before serving (you do know how I object to anything too cold to taste). Serve in glass or white bowls if you have them, with a little extra whipped cream. Garnish with a little grated lemon zest, or with a little mint, if desired.


Friday, December 25, 2015

Brioche for Breakfast: Merry Christmas Morning!

On Christmas morning, I always treat myself to a sweet yeasted bread. Back in the day, I used to make stollen, which I love, using a wonderful recipe from Pleasures of Cooking, the magazine that Cuisinart used to put out in the first years they (the original company run by Carl Sontheimer) were making food processors.  (You remember, the good ones that didn’t crack or burn out).  Later, when it was just me, I would buy a really good imported Panettone (although when I was in Philly I bought them for a few years from Metropolitan Bakery when they were making them) and eat it, slowly, over the course of a week or so, toasting it as it got stale.
This year, still camping out at my son’s house without any of my own equipment and in the mood for something less sweet, I looked at his shiny new KitchenAid, sitting forlorn on the counter, and decided to make brioche. No specialty pan absolutely required (although I do have the big and little fluted molds in storage), no fruits and nuts needed.

I have been fortunate to live around a lot of good bakeries in my wandering days (which is pretty much all of them), but the one I probably loved the most was the one in Carmel, CA where, at the age of 22, before I had ever been to Europe and American bakeries were still, well, American, I fell in love with brioche. (Do you think, for my New Year’s resolution, I should strive for shorter sentences?)  I still absolutely love it, and it is still, surprisingly, not all that easy to find. So I still consider it to be special.

Brioche can be made in lots of shapes, and is most often seen as individual rolls, but I love the look of a big brioche Nanterre. So that’s what I made.   Cultured butter, Wayne’s eggs, flour, yeast—and patience—that’s pretty much it.  A simple pleasure for the holiday. Hope you have a happy one.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Lotsa Butter: Christmas Cookies

Much as I love my lard, to every item there is its fat, and for cookies (with a few Italian exceptions), that is butter. Gorgeous, fresh, sweet, unsalted butter.

I love cookies, and for decades have curated a collection of those I consider to be true keepers. I am not a chocolate chip cookie girl—literally almost never make them except for kids.  It’s not that I don’t appreciate a good, soft, chewy one made with good chocolate, it’s just that I don’t care, sort of like not caring about cupcakes or gooey layered bars or. . . OK, I think I just figured it out: I don’t like things that are too sweet.  So rich, tender, chewy, crisp-elegant, spicy, all good. Too sweet, no.

This year I am rather limited; all my baking stuff--my vast trove of cookie cutters, sheet pans, rolling pins, decorating tips, pastry bags—are in storage, as is my little collection of prize recipes. Had to order a rolling pin (I only have about 10 in storage, so went for something a little different), and a half-sheet pan (can’t have too many of those, either), and a few cookie cutters.  I borrowed a few recipes, found one of my old faves online, and had one of my more recent acquisitions in my computer.

That is the one I provide below, a Mexican wedding cookie given to me by a doctoral student when I was at Vanderbilt. She brought them to a department holiday potluck lunch, and I was lucky enough to eat many of them and to get the recipe.

While I do not have the time anymore (or maybe it’s the energy) to bake hundreds of cookies of a dozen varieties and give them to friends and neighbors, I still think there is nothing I’d rather have on the holiday table, or sitting on the edge of the counter, than a plate of cookies.  So if not a dozen, at least three different kinds, please.

Mexican Wedding Cakes

Though the recipe came to me labeled as “cakes,” which I retain here, they are not cakey, but tender little butter-nut cookies with some similarity to almond crescents.
In Tucson I could use local pecans; buy the very best whole pecans you can find. Makes about 3 dozen, depending on size.

1 c (4 oz) pecans, coarsely chopped
1 c (8 oz) unsalted butter, softened
¼ tea salt
½ c 10x (confectioners) sugar
2 tea pure vanilla extract
2 c a-p flour

¼ c 10x (confectioners) sugar

Adjust the oven rack into the upper third of the oven. Preheat to 350 F.

Spread the coarsely chopped pecans on a baking sheet and toast in the oven, stirring occasionally, 5-8 minutes until lightly browned. You could do this in a toaster oven.
Cool thoroughly, then grind in a food processor until very fine but not quite powdery and certainly not oily.

In a stand mixer or with a hand-held electric mixer, beat the softened butter, salt, ½ cup of confectioners sugar, and vanilla until very fluffy and well combined.  Gradually add and beat the pecans into the butter mixture.  While beating, sift the flour into the mixture and continue beating until evenly incorporated.
Pull off pieces of dough and roll between the palms into generous 1-inch balls.  Space 1 ¼ inches apart on cookie sheets.

Bake, 1 sheet at a time, in the upper third of the oven for 12-15 minutes, until faintly tinged with light golden color.  Transfer the sheet to a rack and let the cookies firm up slightly.  Then transfer the cookies onto the rack to cool thoroughly. 

Sift the ¼ c confectioners sugar onto a sheet of wax paper. Roll the cookies in the sugar to evenly coat; if you are planning to freeze the cookies, freeze unsugared and thaw and sugar before using. Sugared cookies will keep in an airtight container for 2 weeks; you can freeze the baked cookies for a month.


Sunday, December 6, 2015

Leaf Lard + Stayman Winesaps = Iconic Apple Pie


Trendsetter that I have always been, my beloved fat of choice for fruit pies is, at long last, making a comeback. It had gotten to the point where it was near-impossible to find even the commercial (hydrogenated) lard, and recipes that once called for lard—Mexican dishes and many old-fashioned baked goods—had been rewritten to call for Crisco or oil: for shame! But now, lard, like butter, is enjoying a resurgence as a natural food. People are actually making lard again! I have not yet found a local source—I am confident, or at least hopeful, that there is one—but carefully rendered pure leaf lard is increasingly available by mail order.   Thank you, sane and dedicated pig farmers.

Leaf lard is the exceptionally white and pure visceral fat from around the kidneys of the pig. A few words about lard, and leaf lard in particular, will, I hope, do its bit to help restore lard to its rightful place in cooking and baking. Lard was, of course, the most common fat in America before the development of stable oils, widely available commercial butter, and (don’t get me started) margarine. It was used just as one would use butter, not merely for baking or cooking but also to spread on bread (think lardo as served now as a special item in some Italian restaurants).  But lard’s decline in demand was not simply a matter of new, improved products replacing the old; its disappearance had as much to do with smear (no pun intended) campaigns as anything else.

This was ironic, given lard’s properties and characteristics versus many oils, butter, and margarine. For example, pure rendered lard has zero (that’s 0) transfats; it has a much higher percentage of “good” fat (monounsatured), and lower percent of saturated fat (the “bad”) than butter and the trendy coconut oil. It yields a flaky, rich pastry that has particular affinity, in my opinion, for pome and most drupe fruits, poultry and meats (as in empanadas or meat pies), and most berries. It is excellent for frying chicken and potatoes, and as a fat in old-fashioned cakes, cookies and breads, from biscuits and rolls to those containing fruits and nuts.  It adds depth without flavor; no, it doesn't taste like pig. And last but not least, lard, as an agricultural by-product of pigs that can be raised and produced locally, is sustainable and reflects a minimal-waste philosophy.

In time for the holiday baking, I had recently ordered my leaf lard (and some interesting smoked lard that makes very nice roasted potatoes) from FannieandFlo, when I spotted some Stayman Winessaps among the many apple varieties at the store. They were a local offering, unadorned by stickers or shine, priced 20 cents below any other variety. While everyone else grabbed their new-fangled Galas, I grabbed those. Along with Gravensteins and a few other old varieties, the Stayman Winesap is a fine baking apple.  With lard and good local apples in hand, there was only one thing to do: make a pie.

Classic Apple Pie with Lard Crust

You can make a butter and lard crust like this one, or, as I did for this pie, an all-lard crust.  Don’t put a lot of spices in your pie (especially clove or allspice); cinnamon, perhaps a touch of nutmeg if you  must, is all an apple pie needs.

Pastry for a double-crust 9” pie

2 ¼ c a-p flour
2/3 cup cold leaf lard
1 tea salt
6 T ice water

8 large apples (Cortlands, Macouns, or other crisp and tart-sweet baking apple can be used)
scant cup of sugar
cinnamon to taste
3 T a-p flour
pinch salt
1 T lemon juice
2 T unsalted butter

Make your crust in the usual way, by cutting the fat lightly into the flour and salt, then bringing it together with the cold water. Divide and chill, wrapped in plastic or wax paper. I prefer to make my pastry a day or more ahead (freeze it if you don’t plan to use it for a few days, then thaw in the refrigerator.

While the pastry is chilling, put the sugar, flour, cinnamon, and a pinch of salt into a a large bowl. Peel, core, and slice your apples about 1/4” thick, tossing them into the sugar mixture as you go. Add the lemon juice and toss. Always taste the juices before you fill your pie, adding additional cinnamon or a speck of salt if needed; you don’t want your pie to be over-spiced, but you don’t want it bland either.

Preheat the oven to 375F.

Roll out and fit the bottom crust into the pie plate; fill with the apples and pour in the juices. Dot the apples with the butter. Roll out the top crust and fit it over the apples. Trim the pastry as needed; turn it under to sit on the rim, and crimp. With a fork or small skewer, poke some holes into the crust to vent steam. If you have time, refrigerate the filled pie for 10 or 15 minutes.

Bake the pie in the middle of the oven for 45-60 minutes, or until it is golden, fragrant, and the juices begin to bubble through the vent holes. You can use a tiny bamboo skewer inserted into one of the vent holes to check that apples are cooked if you are not sure. Remove the pie and let cool completely before serving.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Happy Thanksgiving: The Immutability of the Menu


I’ve had a lot of change in my life.  Confronted the bad, seized the good, walked away from indifferent and dull.  Far from afraid of change, I am someone who embraces it—maybe even a little too much.

So it is interesting, even curious, that the Thanksgiving menu never, ever changes. Christmas, Easter, Fourth of July: all are reconsidered, reconfigured, revised, reinvented every year.  But Thanksgiving’s only concession in thirty-five years has been to hold back on the number of dishes when the group is smaller—as it is this year.  That means, with some regret, one less vegetable, and one less pie.

In our house, the most essential dish—after the turkey of course—is the Pennsylvania Dutch potato filling that has been on our Thanksgiving table since I was a child. My grandmother made it every year, then my mother, now me. We sometimes refer to it as stuffing, but it is never put in the turkey, but rather baked separately.  A cross between stuffing and mashed potatoes, properly made it is moist, rich but fluffy, smooth but textured.  Leftovers are prized, hot or cold.

Given its reliable presence this time of year, I was surprised to find that I have never provided a recipe for it in a Thanksgiving post.  Most likely because it was decimated for picture-taking before I even thought of it. Or maybe because there really isn’t a recipe, in the sense of one written down. It’s something that is made largely be feel. Even so, that’s an oversight that I hereby correct. You likely have your own immutable menu, but if not, I do think this is worth a try if you like mashed potatoes or stuffing. And really, who doesn’t?

The Family Potato Filling

Other than the potatoes and bread, add the ingredients gradually (as indicated) to get the taste and texture you want. I always make this up to the point of baking the day ahead. Serves 12 or more.

5 lb russet potatoes
2 lb traditional good-quality white bread, such as Pepperidge Farm original
12-16 oz unsalted butter for sautéing bread
1 cup milk, approx., heated
1 large onion, medium dice
4-6 celery stalks, medium dice (be sure to string the celery first)
1-2 tea or more fresh dried thyme
salt and pepper to taste
3-4 T additional butter

Early on the day or the night before you make it, cut the crusts off the bread and lay out on a sheet pan to dry out a bit, turning occasionally; bring the crusts out to the birds immediately so you don’t eat them all dipped in soft butter (who does that??).  Cut the bread into cubes, 4x4 and leave spread out to dry.

Peel and cut the potatoes into even chunks.  Bring to a boil in a large pot of  salted water and cook until tender, or they slip off an inserted knife.

While the potatoes are cooking, sauté the bread cubes. If you have them, use two large frying pans; melt 4 oz butter in each, add the bread in an even layer (do not crowd the pan), and cook, tossing occasionally until crisp and golden, adding butter as needed. You will need to do them in perhaps 4 batches; remove to a bowl as you cook them, sprinkling them lightly with salt, pepper, and thyme as you go, and set aside.
When the potatoes are done, drain them and place in your biggest bowl; the upside-down lid of a Tupperware cake keeper works well. Mash the potatoes, adding warm milk (start with ½ cup), salt, and pepper to achieve a smooth consistency.  I prefer to use an old-fashioned potato masher or a ricer; if you use a mixer, be careful not to overbeat or they will be tough. There is so much butter in the bread that you don’t have to add any.

When the potatoes are smooth and still very warm, fold in the sautéed bread and about ¾ (to start) of the diced celery and onion, or about 1 cup each. Taste for texture, distribution of veggies, and seasoning; mixture will be very firm but should not be super stiff or dry—it should still feel creamy. Add a little more milk and additional salt, pepper, and thyme as needed; the thyme should be clearly present but not dominant.

Butter two baking dishes; if you distribute the filling among a large (say, a glass lasagna pan or a 3-qt soufflé dish) and a small (e.g., a 9” baker or 1 ½ qt gratin), you may be lucky enough to have one untouched for next day, and even defer heating it until you see if it is needed. Spread the mixture into the pans evenly and dot generously with butter. Cover with foil and refrigerate.

Remove from the refrigerator a good 4 or 5 hours ahead to bring to room temperature. Bake in a 375 F oven—you can put it in after your remove your turkey if you have a single oven—still covered with foil, for about 30 minutes (a deep dish takes longer to heat than a shallow one, so plan for that), or until hot in the center (I plunge in a finger to test). Remove the foil and bake another 10 minutes or so until browned and heaving. Serve in generous spoonsful with the turkey gravy.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Transition: Little Compton Poblanos Make A Southwest Classic

One of the first gifts from Little Compton farmers markets—namely, Young Farm—that I received when I returned from my years in Tucson was poblano peppers. As you know, these are a favorite of mine, and the only choice, in my opinion, for chiles rellenos.. I promptly roasted, peeled, and froze them (although, yes, I did make one chile relleno for myself), in part so that I might use them in the future to make something for the person who brought them to me, my friend Anne.

Some weeks later, when Anne was coming for dinner, it seemed that putting them into a Southwest favorite of mine, pork green chile, known simply as “green chile” in most locales, would be nice. I usually use Hatch chiles for green chile, having come to believe that this dish is Hatch chiles’ true calling—but figured poblanos would be just as nice.

For those who don’t know, green chile is a kind of very soupy, minimalist stew. It is important, I think, to honor that, and not be tempted to put in potatoes or other common stew ingredients--even onions are controversial. A good green chile is an intense, rich, and hot-but-mellow marriage of pork and chile.  That is its essence, and its glory.

Green chile is versatile. In the Southwest, you will see it topping all kinds of things, from eggs to tacos and burritos to chicken.  I like it in a bowl, pure and on its own.  Some toritllas or even good white bread on the side for the heat if needed, sort of like serving chile.  I am not averse to having it over rice, as long as there is lots of delicious gravy.

The green chile I made with the Little Compton poblanos was fine. Good, but not great. The poblanos simply do not meld and mellow into the pork in quite the same way as their thinner-walled, differently flavored Hatch cousins do. It seems that this is another instance where a substitute really alters a dish, at least for those who have a basis of comparison. So: poblanos for chiles rellenos, Hatch for green chile. I think you—and also I, now that I am back home—will have to mail order Hatches from New Mexico next season if we want to savor the true taste of a great green chile.

(Pork) Green Chile

Start with a few chiles, and add more to taste; chiles vary in hotness from season to season, and planting area. You will likely use 1-2 cups, chopped. Please use only a pork shoulder/Boston butt, preferably with bone in (increasingly hard to find) so you can get the depth and complexity of flavor that characterizes the best examples of this dish. Serves 8.

4 lb Pork shoulder or Boston Butt, preferably bone-in (which may weight a bit more). This is often labeled as a half a butt.
3 T Lard or vegetable oil
3-8 Hatch (or poblano) chiles, roasted, seeded, peeled, and chopped
3-4 large garlic cloves, peeled and chopped fine
3-4 large tomatillos (around a pound or a bit more), husked and halved, or 1 16 oz can prepared tomatillos
6 c light chicken stock or water (if water, add 1 envelope Goya pork seasoning)
salt to taste
cilantro, chopped, for garnish

Trim and cut the pork roast into small cubes, about 1.”  In a heavy Dutch oven, sear the meat  (and the bone if you have it) in the lard or oil over medium-high heat; reduce the heat to medium-low and add the garlic and tomatillos; cook a few minutes til softened without browning. Taste your chiles for heat; if quite hot, add just a few of the well-chopped  (nearly mushed) chiles and the broth  or water; bring to a low boil then reduce the heat, partly cover, and simmer for an hour.  Remove the bone. Taste, and add additional chiles if more heat is desired. Continue to cook another ½-hr to 1 hr until you have a largely homogeneous but fluid chile-gravy and very tender pork. Season with salt as needed. Serve in bowls with chopped cilantro and tortillas.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Return of the Near-Native: Back in Rhode Island


As I’ve had food-related reason to mention over the eight and half years (!) of this on-again, off-again blog, I was born and spent my childhood in New Jersey, but almost all my adult life in New England, dividing my time between Massachusetts and Rhode Island, where I went to college, had a second home, and have spent every summer for many decades.  I consider myself a Rhode Islander.

As you also know, for the past 7 years I have ranged South and Southwest, but that long absence (like the long first sentence of this post) has finally come to an end. My itinerant days are over. I am back in Rhode Island. For good.

The bad year I mentioned in my last post got worse—really, and there is no point in discussing it except to mention that it involved, as a small but somewhat painful part, disposing of a lot of vintage port from some of the very best 20th century vintage years (alas! the 1963s and 1970s!), and every other ingestible thing in my kitchen. Considering that I normally am in a position to cook most any cuisine in the world for a small army at the drop of a hat, that is a lot of trash. With the cupboard (and the house) bare, the only conclusion I could come to was that it was time to come home. Forgive what might seem a logical leap, but to me it made perfect sense.

So I returned to Rhode Island at the end of September to a spectacular welcome: the most beautiful, balmy, bounteous Fall in memory. Seriously, the hydrangeas are still blooming, and “the last rose of summer” turned out to more aptly be the last rose of Fall—it was last week.  The ocean is available every day. It is good to be back.

I can’t say for sure whether having returned means I will also return to writing the blog on the consistent basis of the years before I left (2007-2008), when I hear tell it was actually pretty good. We’ll see. For now, here are a few pics of things I’ve made since coming home (and a pic of the kind of fresh roast turkey and ham club that childhood memories are made of). It’s been the year of the giant mutant apple, as big as grapefruits or melons. Something about the dry, sunny summer, it seems. So lots of apple desserts, like this pie and pandowdy. And pumpkin pie, of course. Like coming home, it was time.