Monday, September 24, 2012

Roasted Eggplant with Saffron Yogurt

As someone who allots about 15 minutes to shower, dress, and get out the door most mornings, it's possible I underestimate the importance of physical appearance. We should care about inner beauty, right? Not the creative hairstyles resulting from my shower-then-apply-bike-helmet morning ritual. Similarly, food should be eaten because it's delicious, right? Not because it's pretty or artfully fussed-over. Right?

Well, kind of. When it comes to food, sure, we're after delicious. But aesthetics are actually a kind of delicious, too. A counterpoint of colors, careful placement of items on the plate — all of these can shape your whole experience. I'm not talking about 80s-style fussy towers of food, or sauces applied with squeeze bottles in the home kitchen. I'm just talking about taking the smallest of moments to highlight something about the food itself, about the ingredients and occasion and wonder of it all. I'm talking about this salad.

This combination is classic Ottolenghi, just a few simple ingredients that come together in deliciously unexpected ways. And also: so gorgeous! Eggplant is roasted until butter-soft, then topped with a bright yellow saffron yogurt, fragrant green basil leaves, pine nuts, and pomegranates that provide a punchy little pop of tart flavor (as well as garnet-bright color). It's surprising, perfectly balanced, and easy. And beautiful.

Just as the fiery fall palette of leaves makes you take a deep breath in awe of the seasons, this gorgeous plate of late-fall produce captures a bit of that on a smaller scale. Sure, it's just a salad of fall vegetables, a bit of yogurt and nuts. But — as this presentation makes clear — that, in and of itself, can be beautifully amazing.

Roasted Eggplant with Saffron Yogurt

Both the eggplant and saffron yogurt can be prepared in advance, making this a perfect make-ahead dinner party dish. I tripled the amount of eggplants and salad elements and doubled the yogurt, and fed a Rosh Hashanah dinner party of 18 people with a bit of leftovers. You can also substitute a saffron tahini sauce for the yogurt sauce (as we did for one platter) for any dairy-free/vegan guests.

adapted from Ottolenghi: The Cookbook
serves ~4-5, or more as part of a larger spread

2-3 good-sized Italian eggplants, unpeeled
olive oil for brushing
2 tablespoons pine nuts, toasted
1 handful of pomegranate seeds (maybe 1/3 of a pomegranate, depending upon size)
1 handful of basil leaves

Saffron Yogurt:
1 pinch saffron, infused in a few spoonfuls of hot water for a few minutes
2/3 cup Greek yogurt
1-2 garlic cloves, crushed
juice of 1/2 lemon
3 tablespoons olive oil
salt to taste

To cook the eggplants: Preheat your oven to 425° Farenheit. Cut the eggplants into 1/2-inch thick rounds, brush each side with oil, and place in a single layer on a baking tray (you may need to do this in a few batches). Sprinkle with salt, and bake until they soften and brown on the bottom, ~7-10 minutes. Flip over, sprinkle with salt again, and return to the oven until the second side is browned and the eggplant is butter-soft. Transfer to a container and cool (if you don't use a ton of oil, the eggplant may dry out a wee bit on the edges, but if you transfer them to a covered glass container while still warm, they'll soften up beautifully). Let cool, and, if desired, refrigerate up to three days.

To make the saffron yogurt: Whisk together all ingredients until smooth, and adjust seasonings to taste (I was initially wondering whether olive oil was necessary, but it does a lovely job of rounding out the flavors). This can also be made up to three days in advance.

To assemble the salad: If you made the eggplant in advance, allow to warm to room temperature. Lay the eggplant slices on individual plates (or, ideally, a nice dramatic platter). Drizzle generously with the saffron yogurt, then sprinkle the pine nuts, pomegranate seeds, and basil leaves. Serve.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Brown Butter Cake with Pear and Chocolate

Once we age out of wearing pointy hats on our birthdays, most of us tend to not bake up cake for dessert. Cakes are for office parties or weddings. And even on those boredom-killing or celebratory occasions, we're hardly looking forward to them. They're either too cottony, or too cloying, or favoring tier-supporting structure over delicacy. It's little wonder we forgo the cake entirely, opting for plum-studded tarts, or fudgy flourless chocolate cookies, or ganache-covered macaroons instead.

But oh, this cake. This cake. Essentially, it's not much more than your basic genoise — whipped eggs and sugar, some flour and melted butter. But the butter is browned, giving it a surprisingly nutty depth. And then it gets a helping of autumnal pears and bittersweet chocolate. And it's perfect.

To be clear, this isn't your standard buttery birthday cake. It's a bit more complex and grown-up, rich with brown butter and chocolate, moist with pears, but still light and just slightly dry (which is where the whipped cream comes in). It's kind of amazing, especially in these pear-heavy days at the end of summer.

And in other news of the transformative power of a quality baked good, I recently had the good fortune to sit in on a challah-baking class, right before the Jewish new year. You can take a listen over at NPR. L'shana tova!

Brown Butter Cake with Pear and Chocolate

from Al Di La, via the Smitten Kitchen (do you know she has a cookbook coming out?)
1 cup flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 stick unsalted butter
3 eggs, at room temperature
3/4 cup sugar, plus another spoonful or so for sweetening the whipped cream
3 pears, peeled, in a small dice (go with pears that are just barely ripe — too soft and they'll sog up the cake)
3/4 cup bittersweet chocolate chunks
1 cup cream

Preheat the oven to 350° Farenheit. Butter a 9-inch springform pan, dust with breadcrumbs or flour, and set aside.

Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt, and set aside.

To brown the butter, place in a saucepan and melt over medium heat, cooking until the butter turns a light brown and smells nutty and delicious (about 5-7 minutes). Scrape the bottom of the pan towards the end of this time, so that it browns evenly without the solids burning. Remove from the flame but keep in a warm spot.

Using a mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whip the eggs on high speed until pale and very thick. You want to whip them for several minutes, beyond the usual foam, until it thickens and will sheet off the beaters in thick ribbons (more than 5 minutes).

Add the sugar to the eggs and whip a few minutes more.

Just as the egg-sugar mixture is starting to lose volume, turn the mixture down to the slowest stir, and add the flour mixture and brown butter in batches. Add one third of the flour mixture, then half of the butter, a third of the flour, the remaining butter, and the rest of flour. Whisk until just barely combined, then use a spatula to gently scrape and fold in the last of the batter (be careful not to over-mix — though this cake has a hefty amount of leavening, it still gets a lot of its loft from beaten eggs, so you don't want to deflate).

Pour into prepared pan. Sprinkle the pear and chocolate chunks over the top (they'll sink to the middle as the cake sets), and bake until the cake is golden brown and springs back to the touch, about 40 to 50 minutes, or until a tester comes out clean. Whip the cream with a bit of sugar, and serve together.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Focaccia with Pear, Blue Cheese, Arugula and Corn

I made this focaccia for a potluck on Thursday night. And it was so good, I made it again the next day. And now I'm wondering why I don't make this all the time. I know there are those who knead together an eggy-rich braided challah bread to mark the sabbath every Friday night. But I would argue that a seasonal focaccia, bolstered with a bit of whole wheat flour and topped with an assortment of whatever vegetables (and heck, even fruit) happen to be in your refrigerator or farmer's market, is an even lovelier way to mark the time.

This focaccia has a lot going for it. It's easy (after a quick knead, the dough just rises by itself overnight), cheap (especially if you go with a similar refrigerator-cleaning mix of items), and is ridiculously delicious. The thin slices of pear (picked from a friend's tree!) add a bit of sweetness without being overpowering, and also contribute a bit of moisture, making it feel rich even with minimal cheese. The sweet corn, peppery arugula and piquant blue cheese all play off each other beautifully. And though I've already made it twice, I'm totally planning on making it yet again. Until the next seasonal focaccia comes to harvest.

Focaccia with Pear, Blue Cheese, Arugula and Corn

Inspired by this Woodberry Kitchen recipe in Bon Appetit, but tweaked beyond recognition
serves ~12 as an appetizer, ~6 as a more substantial meal element

As with any dough, a long, slow rise works beautifully (so don't be freaked out at the small amount of yeast). I do this as a two-day process: make dough at night, rise in the fridge, press out onto the tray in the morning, refrigerate again, top and bake before dinner. But you can tweak the timing to work with your schedule, skipping the second refrigeration if needed.

1 1/2 cups room-temperature water
1/2 teaspoon active dry yeast
1 tablespoon sugar or honey
2 tablespoons olive oil (plus more for coating the dough)
1 scant tablespoon coarse salt (plus more for topping)
1 cup whole wheat flour
2 1/2 cups bread flour

aleppo pepper (a richly flavored yet not-at-all hot pepper — seek it out if you want this delicious secret weapon in your pantry, omit otherwise)
1 pear, cored and thinly sliced
1/4 pound blue cheese, crumbled
1/2 bunch torn arugula (or several handfuls baby arugula), tossed with a drizzle of olive oil
1 ear corn, cut off the cob

To make the dough: Pour the water in the bowl of a mixer (or just a large bowl), and sprinkle the yeast over. Let sit a few minutes for the yeast to soften and bloom, then stir in the remaining ingredients until combined. Let sit, covered, for 15 minutes to hydrate, then knead with a dough hook (or stir with a spoon) for just a few minutes, until the dough comes together in a smooth mass (the dough should just clear the sides of the mixer — add more flour if needed, but it should still be somewhat soft and sticky). Oil a covered container, and transfer the dough. With wet or oiled hands, pull one end of the dough out until you can basically fold the dough in half, then rotate a quarter-turn and repeat with each side (this stretch-and-fold technique builds a little firmness into the dough without extra flour). When finished, flip the dough upside-down (so that the oiled bottom is now on top), cover, and refrigerate overnight.

To shape the focaccia: Remove from the refrigerator, and let warm to room temperature. Line a half-sheet pan with parchment, or coat it with a bit of oil, and turn the dough out onto it. With wet or oiled hands, try to pat-push the dough until it is evenly spread in a thin layer over the entire surface (if it resists you, step away for a few minutes to let the dough relax, then come back to it). When the dough has been spread out, cover with a thin film of oil, and refrigerate again (or, if you don't have the time, proceed with topping and baking).

To finish the focaccia: Preheat the oven to 500 degrees farenheit (you want a hot oven so you can let it preheat the full time the dough is doing its final rise).

Remove the dough from the refrigerator, if it's been chilling there. Sprinkle the oiled top of the focaccia with aleppo pepper, then top with the pear, blue cheese, arugula and corn. Give a thin brush of oil over the pears, and a sprinkling of salt over everything. Let rise until starting to get a bit puffy — this will take 20-30 minutes if the dough is at room temperature, longer if it's been refrigerated. Bake until the focaccia is browned and delicious-looking, about 20 minutes.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Masala Breakfast Burritos

Often I think back on the intense friendships of my youth with a bit of wistfulness. Good friends in high school are somewhere between siblings and romantic partners, sharing your clothes and sleeping in your bed. As we get older, it's seldom quite the same.

But while the friendships of adulthood involve fewer sleepovers, tears and all-nighters, they do have an intensity all their own. It's something that comes from knowing each other deeply (as well as finally knowing yourself), and the deep well of trust that forms over the years. Your good friends in adulthood may have busy lives in other parts of the world, but they still drop a line whenever something reminds them of you, and it's just like old times. These friends let you stay with them whenever you're in town, and somehow make you feel like you're doing them the favor. And they come through for you, no matter what.

My friend Katie is one of the good ones. She has a singular way of looking at the world that manages to be whip-smart witty as well as hugely kind, and she's repeatedly flown across the country for friends who need help with a new baby or a wedding (even when she's had to leave or schlep along her own family to do it). And so, when she had her second child, I spent a week with her in the Midwest. And it was just great.

Between diaper changes, neighborhood walks, and failed pantry reorganization, I spent a lot of time cooking. A new freezer arrived the day after I did, and we filled it with quiches and curries, Thai marinated skewers and picada-thickened Spanish sauces. But best of all were these masala breakfast burritos.

My friend Brian introduced me to the wonders of the DIY frozen burrito last year. While his recipe is a sort of Mexican/hippie hybrid, I decided to give the traditional breakfast burrito an Indian spin. It's still got soft scrambled eggs, sharp cheddar, and a sprinkling of chorizo (or, if you're vegetarian, soyrizo). But the standard hash browns are spiked with mustard seeds and turmeric, like the filling of an Indian dosa, and instead of salsa they're given a swipe of punchy green chutney (in this case, I made a version with cilantro, fresh mint, green chilies and a bit of dried coconut and lime juice). I tripled the recipe, and threw in a bit of quick-cooked broccoli for good green measure, which netted us about 2 dozen burritos. Wrapped in foil and stashed in freezer bags, they should provide grab-and-go breakfast, lunches and snacks for months to come.** Which, really, is the least a friend can do. You can find the recipe over at The Oregonian.

* lead photo thanks to the amazing Rebecca of Cakewalk
**To update: the burritos were embraced by Katie's 7-year-old, and ended up lasting less than a month