Sunday, October 24, 2010

Lemons: $1.97 a bag

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         I cannot understand why, for years now, a single lemon in a grocery store costs 60 cents, sometimes more, but you can buy loads of them for a dollar if you happen to live in a city and go to an Asian fruit market. Actually, I do understand, and it is extremely annoying. Most American home cooks use one lemon at a time—to garnish a drink or a plate, to squeeze over a piece of fish, to stuff inside a chicken. They don’t want a lot of lemons growing moldy in their refrigerators. So grocery stores say, aha, we can charge a lot for one lemon, because when you need a lemon, you need a lemon—there is really no suitable substitute, not even a lime in many cases (which also is overpriced)—and you just need one. We end up paying a small fortune for a single lemon, and being resentful, OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         and the store ends up making a huge margin. Thing is, we often buy only one because they are too pricey; we might buy more were they not. A vicious circle.

So when I saw an entire bag of lemons for $1.97 at my grocery store—yes, I know, very odd price—I did a double take, and of course  snatched them up. Twelve lemons—that’s 16.4 cents apiece! And they were nice—relatively thin-skinned, smooth, full of juice, and a healthy, average, nonmutant size. I went to bed that night (yes, this is how I fall asleep) thinking about what I should do with them. Lemon curd? Preserved lemons, which I haven’t made in years? (probably because lemons got so expensive) Limoncello?

In thinking about what I might make, and what I haven’t made in a long time, I remembered something I hadn’t thought of in ages. Years and years ago, when my oldest sister Laura Torbet was still living in New York and was working on the Encyclopedia of Crafts, I and an assortment of other people used to go to her big loft studio on W. 23rd Street every day to work on the book. I think there were 6 or 7 of us, and every day we would have some sort of wonderful lunch that my sister would sort of effortlessly throw together. We would gather at a table in the kitchen area and eat between bouts of serious research, writing, and editing about surprisingly technical and brain-frying material. Sometimes we would have a lemon pie made from whole lemons (often called a Shaker Lemon Pie). A friend had given my sister the recipe, as I recall, and she gave it to me and I wrote it down. I still have it.
I got a craving for that pie, thinking about it, and made it, or rather, a variation on it, the next day. I used four lemons, leaving me 8. Hmm, maybe I’ll make some curd after all. The holidays are coming, and I love to slather it between two ginger or spice cookies.
Shaker Honey Lemon Pie
This pie appeals to the waste-not, want-not, farm woman part of me; it is not for everyone, certainly not for anyone looking for something refined—it is not. But it has a sort of genius  to it, and is good warm or cold. It should be sweet-tart, and the skins should have a little chew to them but be tender, not hard. It is very nice with ice cream. Serves OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         6.

Butter-lard or all-butter pastry for a 2-crust pie, divided (see note)
4 medium lemons, as thin-skinned as you can find
1 ½ cups cane sugar
1/3 cup honey
4 large brown eggs
Preheat the oven to 450 F.
Cut a slice off the rounded ends of the lemons. Using a mandolin with a guard to protect your fingers and holding the lemons by the pointy end, slice them thinly into a bowl (if you don’t have a mandolin, use a very sharp thin-slicing knife and slice as paper-thin as you can). Put the sugar into the bowl with the lemon slices, and pick up the bowl and toss, coating the slices. Let them macerate for a couple of hours until the sugar is dissolved and the lemons are sitting in the syrup.
In a small bowl beat the eggs with the honey and pinch of salt. Using a slotted spoon, lift the lemon slices out of their bowl and add them to the eggs/honey. Strain and measure the syrup left in the bowl; it should be about ¾ of a cup. Add about ½ cup to the eggs/honey/lemons, and stir gently.
Roll out half the pastry and fit it into a 9” pie plate. Chill for 10 minutes, and roll out the other half while it is chilling. Pour the lemon filling into the pie shell, distributing the lemon slices evenly; it will be very liquid. Top with the second round of pastry, flute the edges to seal, and prick the top gently. Don’t worry if a little of the filling seeps through.
Bake at 450 F for 10 minutes, then reduce the heat to 350F and bake another 30-35 minutes, until the crust is golden. Remove to a rack to cool until nearly room temperature; serve with ice cream. It is also very good cold. Do refrigerate any leftovers.
Note: I upped the fat a little and altered the butter/lard proportion to 8 T butter, 3 T lard; less water was required to bring it together. This makes for a richer, more tender crust that seems to suit and melt into the tart and creamy filling.


Friday, October 15, 2010

Fall Cleaning: Brioche, and A Few Apples

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         You know you probably have too many odds and ends in your refrigerator and freezer when it starts getting difficult to find a place to put anything. Going through and using things to make, say, a nice soup, will free your freezer of some bulky stock, perhaps a bone or two, and your refrigerator of an assortment of vegetables, cheese ends, and dairy products. This is a good thing to do at any time of year, but none more so than late fall, when you look at the calendar and realize that holiday baking is just around the corner. You will need all the freezer space you can get, come November.

I made some chicken soup the other day, producing a satisfying amount of new freezer space. In the process of locating the multiple containers of stock, I found some brioche—quite a lot, actually. I had put it away a month or so ago so that I wouldn’t just eat it all, and then rather forgotten about it. In the frig I had three apples—three different kinds, orphans all. There were a few cups of cider left in a half-gallon bottle. I made this fruit pudding; bready, but not strictly speaking a bread pudding as we think of one, as there is no custard—no milk or eggs.

Brioche and Apple Pudding

Be sure to use tart cooking apples. Unlike with regular bread pudding, I think this is better cold. Serves 6-8.

¾ lb leftover brioche (you could use a rich challah)
3 tart apples
1 ½-1 ¾ cups apple cider or unfiltered apple juice
Juice and zest of 1 lemon
½ cup dried cherries or raisins
½ cup sugar
1 ½ T mixed cinnamon and cardamom, to taste
1 T butter

Preheat the oven to 350 F.

Butter a deep baking dish, such as a 6 cup soufflĂ© dish. Slice the brioche about 1/2” thick and toss the slices in a bowl with the lemon zest and dried fruit. Pour over the apple cider and press the brioche a bit with the back of wooden spoon; it should become fully moist, but not watery. Peel and chop the apples into medium dice, and toss in another bowl with the lemon juice. Mix the sugar with cinnamon and cardamom. Using a spoon, layer these mixtures a little at a time in the dish as follows: bread, apples, cinnamon-sugar—forming three or four layers of each. Dot with the butter. Bake for 30 minutes. Remove to a rack to cool.

The cider makes this sweet, so it is nice to serve it with sour cream or plain unsweetened cream poured over.



Monday, October 4, 2010

Rye Flour


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         I did a lot of experimenting with making rye breads at home this past summer—or rather, in a summer cottage with a tiny, poorly insulated and poorly sealed old apartment-size stove. Not the best venue for trying to replicate the wonderful old world rye breads I grew up on. But I wanted that taste again, to eat thick slices slathered with salted butter, to make a really good ham and cheese sandwich, or a favorite of my father’s and mine, an onion sandwich with mayonnaise, salt, and pepper, and I had some time. It was summer. Not the greatest bread-baking time, but time.

Surprisingly, recreating the taste was not as difficult as I had anticipated. It was getting the bread to bake to the right size and texture. For the moment, I am blaming the oven, as the breads always went in looking perfect, then generally deflated rather than rose with the initial high temperature, and the crusts became a little hard. There are actually several potential reasons for this, but for the moment I am sticking with the oven as culprit. Everyone who tasted them thought they were excellent—and as I said, the flavor was amazingly spot on—but having eaten pounds and pounds of the best ryes growing up, I knew. Not quite. So I plan to try again this winter, in a different oven and without the 100 degree heat and humidity of this summer. I have some sour, waiting silently in the darkness of the freezer. And I will make some fresh as well (it could, after all, have been my starter).

This is all to say that, in cleaning out my too-full freezer, I discovered a bag of rye flour containing barely enough to coat a countertop—a half cup. Not sure why I bothered to keep it, unless it is the hard-dying “waste not, want not” attitude instilled in me by my grandmother. I do find such things very, very hard to throw out. So compelled to use it, I made these rye popovers. Everyone knows that a popover is a very satisfying thing. A rye popover is different—less delicate--but retains the qualities of crisp exterior and partly hollow, tender and stretchy interior.

Rye Popovers

Use a cast iron popover or gem pan for best results. You could also use little ceramic custard molds if needed. Be sure your oven is fully preheated. You can whip these up for breakfast. Makes 6-8, depending on your pan.

½ cup rye flour
½ cup a-p flour
¼ tea salt
1 T unsalted butter, melted
1 cup whole milk
2 large eggs

Preheat the oven to 450F. Lightly butter the pan if it is not well-seasoned, and put it in the oven while it is heating.

In a 4-cup measure or a small bowl, preferably with a spout, sift the flours together with the salt. Pour the milk into a 2-cup measure, add the eggs, and beat with a small whisk until lightly incorporated. Make a little well in the flour and pour in the milk/egg mixture and the melted butter. Whisk for a minute or so until thoroughly smooth.

Pour the batter into the hot pan, filling the openings about 2/3 of the way. If you are using a full size iron popover pan, bake at 450F for 25-30 minutes; they will be high. Reduce the heat to 350F and bake another 15 minutes, until tawny and shiny. If you are using an aluminum pan or smaller gem pan, the timing will be shorter, perhaps by as much as a a third. Bake them at the higher temperature until they are fully puffed, then reduce the heat and bake until they are nicely colored and dry; you can use a small wooden skewer to check them if needed. Watch them and use your judgment. Turn out immediately onto a rack, and poke them once with a tiny skewer or the tip of a sharp knife. You can eat them now, with butter and, if you like, jam. I do, and am partial to apricot with the rye flavor.

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