Sunday, June 29, 2008

Heavenly Heavy Cream

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         Whether by coincidence or subconscience, I have always lived in a dairy farming region. And while actually living within a few miles of a dairy farm or true dairy store has not actually been a criterion (like, for example, living close to a good bakery has always been), I’ve somehow managed to do that with great continuity and serendipity. The upshot: great heavy cream, the stuff grandmothers bemoan the loss of and chefs source from distant purveyors, has always been mine for the asking. I am happily spoiled.
Heavy cream is the higher-fat layer that separates from milk when (in commercial production) spun in a centrifuge, or that (naturally) rises and is skimmed from the top of unhomogenized milk—hence another name, “top cream.” Heavy cream is sometimes also called “whipping cream” because it can be beaten to double its volume, but in recent decades a distinct “whipping cream” product has appeared in the market that is lower in fat (30-36%) than true heavy cream. In this country, the heavy cream you buy in the market is usually 36% butterfat. Creams available from dairies may be 38-40% butterfat or more, and these few percentage points make a remarkable difference. Also, much store-bought cream is ultra-pasteurized for longevity, while the cream from a local dairy is minimally pasteurized or, if you can get someone to sell it, raw. Raw or minimally pasteurized cream, and cream with a high milkfat content, will whip (and taste) the best.
Cream is a dream for cooking and baking, whether the centerpiece ingredient (ice cream), the garnish (whipped cream), the emulsifier (sauces), the finisher (soups), the fat-liquid combo (scones), or the enricher (drinks, starting with coffee, but let’s not forget the divine peppermint patty of my youth). You should consider heavy cream a staple, and always keep a container on hand for the emergency what’s-for-dinner meal of pasta in reduced cream sauce with a little nutmeg and parm, for rescuing a broken sauce, for transforming a salad dressing, for pouring over oatmeal, berries, pie, or coffee cake. The wondrous cream from local dairies will not keep beyond a week or so, but that’s OK. You will find you use it if you have it. And if after a few days it is as thick as sour cream, it will liquefy when warmed or can be used like clotted cream. If it has indeed soured, then use it as you would any other sour cream. Far better to follow its short natural life than to have a container of supermarket ultra-pasteurized cream, the stabilized keeping qualities of which are downright scary, in your fridge for three months.
Here in Little Compton, we are truly blessed to have access to the heavy cream from Arruda’s Dairy Farm. Arruda’s was established in 1917, and is still owned and operated by one of the founder’s children, Jean, and her husband, Antone Moniz (Sr.). In 2006, the Department of Environmental Management awarded them their Outstanding Dairy Farm of the Year award—no surprise there—citing their hormone free, farm-produced and farm-pasteurized milk. Their whole milk OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         is beloved by milk lovers and cake bakers for its 4.5% fat content, about 1% above store milk; it is carried by many area stores. The heavy cream is more of a best-kept secret, however, and not necessarily available where other Arruda products are sold. This cream, with a fat content well into the mid-40% range, is as close to the famous “double cream” of U.K. dairies as one can get. It plops touchingly when you pour it—see the photo to the right and also here in a recipe for pasta with the currently available local snap peas. I am devoted to it.
Light and Lightning Whipped Cream Cake
This is the fastest cake I make, and I call it light because, even though it contains a cup of heavy cream, there is no butter in it; the cream provides all the necessary fat as well as the liquid. It is a good plain and tender cake, similar to a pound cake but with a looser crumb, for serving with berries, or toasting and buttering for breakfast or an afternoon snack. Makes 1 loaf.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

1 cup heavy cream, the highest-fat you can find
2 large brown eggs
1 tea 100% vanilla extract
1 ½ cups flour
1 cup sugar
½ tea salt
2 tea baking powder
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Butter and sugar a standard (8.5x4.5x2.5) bread pan. Sift the dry ingredients together and set aside. In a small bowl beat the eggs until well combined, and set aside.
In a standing mixer fitted with the whisk, whip the cream until it forms a firm peak on the lifted beater, being careful not to overbeat. With the motor running at medium speed, add the beaten eggs and vanilla to the cream; stop as soon as combined. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Change the mixer attachment to the paddle. On low speed, gradually add the sifted dry ingredients; again, stop as soon as combined. The batter will be thick. (If you don’t have a standing mixer, after beating the cream and eggs with either an egg beater or handheld electric mixer, fold the dry ingredients in with a rubber spatula.)
Pour the batter into the prepared pan and shake it back and forth on the counter a bit to distribute and smooth the top. Bake about 55 minutes, or until a skewer comes out clean. Let stand at least 10 minutes before turning out. In the photo, the cake is served with last year’s sour cherries, preserved in a light spiced syrup, removed from inventory (the new cherries should be here any day). This was my son’s birthday cake today, after his requests of a salad with breaded goat cheese and a homemade pizza.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Strawberry Season Par Excellence

Once again, the first strawberries are here, and they are de-licious. The best in years. Red-ripe through and through, not a speck of white at the shoulder, juicy, sweet, with a glossy red brightness that only the freshest berry has, and only for a the fleetingest time. While I usually eat my berries sliced with cream and a little sugar, this year they truly are so good that I have been eating them plain, held by the stem and chewed down to the little frill of a crown. This is really saying something for someone who generally prefers her fruit cooked, in the form of a pie or at least a jam.
Not that this year’s strawberries would not make up admirably well in both cases, and right now is a good time to pick quarts and quarts of them at a farm if you want to make jam. (And if you don’t, you can go to one of the many local strawberry festivals and buy it, with a little shortcake for your lunch). On the pie front, I have an old recipe that calls for pureeing strawberries and combining them with gelatin, which forms the base, to be topped with meringue. It is old fashioned, pretty, and good. My old boss Gary used to make a pie with cornstarch-thickened mashed strawberries topped first with a mixture of cream cheese and sour cream and then fresh whole strawberries. And I absolutely love a true strawberry tart with a pastry cream base and an all-butter crust.
Still, less is more this year. To showcase the berries with minimal adornment, you could simply douse them with a little aged balsamic vinegar, pepper, and mint. Or for something slightly fancier but still completely simple, try these marinated strawberries. Purchase your fresh-picked strawberries the day you want to eat them and do not refrigerate! I don’t even wash them—I just wipe away any specks of dirt with a slightly damp paper towel—but you can rinse them briefly if you must.
Strawberries in Red Wine
Make these up before you sit down to dinner, and they will be ready for your dessert. Do not refrigerate, which would damage the texture. Although 5 minutes in the freezer won’t hurt if you like a little chill. Serves 3. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
1 pint perfect strawberries
1 tea lemon juice
A few thin slices of lemon rind
Scant 3 T fruity honey, such as raspberry
½ cup good-quality light red wine
Tiny pinch of salt
2 large mint leaves (optional, but nice)
½ cup heavy cream
Additional honey
1 tea Triple Sec or Cointreau (optional)
Wipe the strawberries clean of any dirt, and remove the stems and leaves, reserving a few tiny ones whole for garnish if you wish. In a small bowl, place the honey and stir in the lemon juice and rind. Add the strawberries; you can leave them whole if they are small, otherwise slice them in half or quarters. Toss gently and let them stand about 10 minutes; add the wine and, if using, the mint leaves and let stand another 10 minutes minimum, or up to perhaps 45 minutes. Whip the cream to a light, soft, ploppy stage, adding a little honey and the liqueur to taste, and serve it alongside or on top of the berries. Little glass or white dishes are pretty.
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Sunday, June 15, 2008


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         Though the botanical family Lamiaceae includes many other culinary flowering herbs, from basil to thyme, it is commonly known as “the mint family” in acknowledgment of its many bright, fragrant, and popular species that we call, simply, mint. Nowadays, if you live near a garden center or nursery, you will likely have access to at least peppermint, spearmint, pineapple mint, and apple mint, all popular varieties. Mysteriously, mints are less available on a reliable basis in stores, so it’s extremely useful to have your own out back. Because this perennial can really take over, you are probably wisest to plant it in a deep well-drained container or, if in the ground, a tightly constricted area. Shade or part sun is best, but mints are easy-going thrivers wherever you set them down.
Peppermint, which has a venerable and continuing history as a soothing and even nutritive medicinal, and which lives permanently in our mind’s eye as a sort of mid-century color, is one of my favorite flavors. For ice cream and candy canes, of course. For cool drinks like lemonade, juleps, and mojitos, and as a hot-tea afternoon pick-me-up. For jelly making, and as a frosting for brownies. In high summer, when there are great tomatoes, there is nothing so refreshing as a tabbouleh salad made with tons of lemon and chopped fresh mint.
But you can have it now. Our odd spring/early summer—endless cool and rainy weather followed by a sudden burst of ground-warming heat—has thrown off the usual orderly schedule of emerging produce, creating a somewhat confusing collision of choices. Asparagus was so late that its season was shorter than ever, while herbs started growing like mad. Even strawberries began to show before asparagus had totally given up the ghost for the season.
The famous spring asparagus goes nicely with mint. Mint’s refreshing, astringent qualities balance the grassy taste of asparagus and adds range to its somewhat limited profile.
Pasta with Asparagus and Mint
Pasta makes for a surprisingly light meal in unseasonably warm weather. The secret is to barely dress it. Serves 2.
3 strips smoky bacon
½ medium onion
½ lb medium-thin asparagus, or about 14 spears
1/3 cup light cream or half and half
6 oz dried quality egg fettuccine, such as De Cecco™
Salt, freshly ground pepper
About 25 large mint leaves
Grated parmesan (optional)
Put a large pot of water, covered, on to boil. Stack the mint leaves and roll them up tightly, lengthwise. With a very sharp knife, cut the rolls across very closely to a fine chiffonade. Cook the bacon over medium heat until it is crisp but not burned; remove with a slotted spoon to drain on paper towels, leaving the fat in the pan.
While the bacon is cooking, bend the asparagus until it snaps, discarding the ends, then cut the stalks at an angle into 2” pieces. Slice the onion about ¼” thick.
Turn the heat up on the fat to medium high. Add the asparagus and toss it around for about 2 minutes; then add the onion and a little salt and pepper and cook with the asparagus until they have softened and begun to brown, about 3 minutes. Remove the onions and asparagus from the pan; discard the fat and clean the pan out.
Pour about ¼ cup of the cream into the clean pan and put the heat on low. Salt the boiling water, add the pasta, and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes. Drain and add to the cream, raising the heat a little while tossing to coat and thicken a little. Just before removing from the heat, toss in the asparagus and onion, taste for seasoning, the add the remaining few tablespoons of cream. Divide the pasta between two bowls, crumble the bacon over it, and sprinkle generously with the mint. Serve at once, with parmesan if you like.
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Sunday, June 8, 2008

Seltzer: At Home in Rhode Island

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         No, of course not, seltzer is not a Rhode Island thing. But when I was in New Jersey a few weeks ago, a visit to a “luncheonette”—complete with old soda fountain—got me thinking about seltzer, which got me thinking about egg creams, which got me thinking about how seltzer was a perfect thing to talk about on a Rhode Island blog.
Confused yet? Let’s break it down.
An egg cream is a classic—indeed, a legendary—fountain drink invented in Brooklyn, NY, of which those of us who grew up in the vicinity have fond memories. The original is made from chocolate syrup, milk, and seltzer—no eggs, no cream. That alone is very Rhode Island.
But the real Rhode Island-like characteristic of an egg cream, and the one that reminded me of Rhode Island looking at these beautiful seltzer bottles, is that an egg cream was made from a particular brand of chocolate syrup: Fox’s U-Bet. The egg cream was near-synonymous with that syrup.
You from Rhode Island now know where I’m going with this, and why I was reminded of Rhode Island by seltzer. Coffee syrup, of course. We have our own particular drink syrup—though locals may argue over the distinctions between Autocrat® and Eclipse®—and our official State Drink, coffee milk. Why not add seltzer?
I’ve already written about coffee syrup as a great Rhode Island product on this blog, complete with instructions for making coffee milk (add syrup to milk, stir). So a word here about seltzer. Seltzer is “soda water,” water that has been artificially carbonated by the injection of carbon dioxide under pressure, which generates bubbles when the pressure is released (a bottle opened or a seltzer bottle squeezed). It is distinguished from club soda—but only slightly so—by its lack of added chemical salts. I always have seltzer around because I like carbonation but can’t afford—for many reasons—to drink champagne all day, and it is cheaper and more bubbly than imported carbonated mineral waters. So making the following is as easy as pulling a few things out of the cupboard. (Not the "cabinet": here in Rhode Island, that's a drink, too. . . .)
A true fountain drink, this must be mixed immediately before serving. There are two methods. Method 1 ensures that the frothy head will be white, on top of a  layer of coffee-colored creamy drink, but it is better suited for using a true charger-driven seltzer siphon. If you don’t have one (I don’t), use freshly opened bottled seltzer and Method 2. It will still be nicely layered, but be more of a two-toned drink with a lighter coffee-colored head.
A classic CocaCola® glass, with its narrow bottom and flared top, is ideal if you have one. I substitute a cabernet wine glass with a 12-oz capacity. Serves 1.
1/2 cup icy-cold half and half or whole milk (a little time in the freezer is good)*
1 cup seltzer
1/4 cup Eclipse® or Autocrat® coffee syrup*
Method 1
Pour the half and half or whole milk into the glass. Add seltzer, agitating with an ice-tea spoon or clean chopstick (this is what I use) as you do so to form a frothy white, egg-white-looking head. Gently pour the syrup down the side of the glass and, with the spoon or clean chopstick stir the syrup and milk together along the bottom rim, trying not to disturb the head. Drink now.
Method 2
Pour the half and half or whole milk into the glass. Stir in the syrup until completely combined. Add the seltzer, agitating with the spoon or chopstick all the while. Drink now.
* Don’t even think about using low-fat milk: it won’t work. Likewise, the traditional, non-artisanal coffee syrups are best for this.
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Sunday, June 1, 2008

Farmer’s Cheese: Endangered Species

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         I would not normally have written about farmer’s cheese, something I buy at the market, except that over the past few years I’ve noticed it has been harder and harder to find. And recently, almost impossible. After a while it occurred to me that the stores were not simply out of stock temporarily, but perhaps permanently. I decided to ask.
As I had begun to suspect, most stores have stopped carrying farmer’s cheese. You may well ask, why? Because it has a short shelf life, I’m told—it doesn’t last. Oh no: it doesn’t have preservatives—the nerve! It’s a real product—let’s get rid of it and just carry the processed stuff with a half-life of a zillion years! There’s no demand, they say, without irony to a person who is standing in front of them asking for it.
So naturally I am inclined to ask, which comes first, the lack of demand, or the unavailability? And  also, to be fair-minded, does it really matter if there’s no more farmer’s cheese?
I say it does matter, and that there would be more demand if there were greater availability and awareness. (Fresh mozzarella, I’m thinking, another not-so-long-lasting cheese, had little demand in the supermarkets until you could, like, buy it there.) Farmer’s cheese has some special qualities. First, it’s a fresh cheese. Fresh cheeses are great for, among other things, spreading on a piece of bread with a little salt and pepper, or accompanied by a sweet or spicy condiment, or mixed with garlic and herbs. Very similar to fresh mild goat cheese, or chevre, but cheaper. (It’s usually made from cow’s milk, not goat, in this country.) Second, it’s light and low in calories and fat as cheeses go: about 50 calories and 2.5 grams of fat per ounce, which is less than cream cheese or soft goat cheese. It also has about 5 OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         grams of protein.
But mainly, I need it for certain things. Chief among them is the making of blintzes or the little farmer’s cheese pancakes below—I call them blintz cakes because they use many of the same ingredients as blintzes, but they are actually an old New England griddle cake. I’ve tried well-drained cottage cheese and ricotta as alternatives, but they’re just not the same. And for decades I’ve used farmer’s cheese as a near-perfect substitute for queso blanco, a Mexican cheese that can be hard to find outside of urban neighborhoods or Mexican markets, and that is a must for garnishing all kinds of tortilla-based dishes, especially tostadas. And while I don’t make the Russian Easter specialty paska too often, when I do there is nothing else that works so well, or is so authentic. Ditto for cheese pierogi.
If you go looking for this cheese, therefore, you are most likely to find it in a neighborhood populated by those who use it for traditional cooking: Jews, Russians, Polish, Portuguese. But it is disappearing even in those neighborhoods where, increasingly, the markets that serve them are large chains that deal with equally large distributors of generic goods. So if you find it, get it while you can. In more ways than one, this cheese is not going to last.
Blintz Cakes
These are best complemented by something sweet, like maple syrup or a fruit sauce. I like both together. Serves 2, for about 12 3” cakes. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
1 cup Farmer’s cheese 
4 T sour cream
4 T flour
2 large eggs
Generous ¼ tea salt
Pull the cheese apart loosely with a fork. In a small bowl, beat the egg lightly then stir in the cheese, sour cream, and salt until just combined. Heat a griddle medium-hot. Butter it, and drop the mixture into small cakes with a tablespoon. When they begin to dry at the edges and you can slide your spatula below, turn them; they should be light brown on the underside; if too dark, lower your heat. Cook on the second side until light brown. The total cooking time, if your heat is correct, should be about 4 minutes; the cakes should be slightly puffy and airy. Serve with butter and syrup and/or blueberry sauce (below).
Blueberry Sauce
Frozen blueberries from inventory are perfect for this. Makes about 1 cup. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
½ cup sugar
½ cup water
2 tea cornstarch dissolved in 2 tea cold water
½ tea vanilla
1 cup blueberries
A few twists of the nutmeg mill and a dash of cinnamon
Pinch salt
1 drop pure orange oil or 1 tea lemon juice
Heat the sugar and water to dissolve; turn up the heat, add the cornstarch/water, and boil for a minute or so until thickened to a sauce. Add the blueberries, vanilla, and seasoning and cook another minute, or until the blueberries have mostly broken down; strain or leave the sauce as is, which will be a bit textured (this is what I do for something like this). If you want the blueberries whole, add them at the end a few seconds before taking off the heat.
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