Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Piedmontese Nut Cake with Wine-Poached Pears

The beginning of fall feels like a series of doors closing: no more lazy sunlit evenings, no more bicycling without gloves, no more waking up to a warm house. I just taught a visiting European friend the phrase "picnic weather," only to have to cancel tonight's picnic after the rain started. The Portland skies have been dark lately, and the adjustment can be pretty rough. But after mourning summer's departure, you remember the lovely things about fall. Toasty fireplaces, for one. And this cake.

This is no springtime dessert. The cake is rich with ground nuts, and topped with boozy poached pears. The recipe was originally adapted by the lovely Traveler's Lunchbox blog, which took Italy's Piedmont tradition of poached pears and nut-rich cakes, and combined them into one dessert. I'm a big fan of such one-pan ventures. The cake is buttery and sweet, and nubby with ground nuts. But then it's topped with pears that have been poached in wine and sugar, and brushed with a syrup reduced from the same. I first made this last year, for no real occasion, and we felt sort of reckless with our good fortune as we cut thick slices to have for a snack.

Like the Plum Custard Tart, this is a dessert that ranks high on the prettiness scale. But unlike the tart, these jewel-like fruits aren't resting on a bed of trembling custard. They're on a much heartier landing pad of nut-filled cake. To fortify you for the cold autumn nights ahead.

Piedmontese Nut Cake with Wine-Poached Pears

adapted from The Traveler's Lunchbox's Piedmontese Hazelnut, Pear and Marsala Cake (I felt compelled to rename it, as my version was missing two of the three titular ingredients), initially adapted from the Piedmontese Hazelnut Cake in Michele Scicolone's 1,0000 Italian Recipes

If you're aching to make this cake, but your pears are a bit under-ripe, don't worry -- they'll soften in the poaching liquid, and will be tender and flavorful by the time they're out of the oven.

For the Pears:

2/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup white wine
1/2 cup Marsala (or other sweet fortified wine, such as Port or Madeira)
1 cup water
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
5 medium pears, peeled, halved and cored

For the Cake:

1 1/2 cups finely ground hazelnuts (traditional) or almonds (also good)
1/2 cup flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
3 eggs
1/2 tsp vanilla

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees, and grease a 9-inch pan (a springform is nice if you have it, but anything will work).

Combine the sugar, wines, water, vanilla and pears in a saucepan. Bring to a simmer, and then reduce heat to low. Simmer, uncovered, until the pears just begin to get translucent, and are tender when pierced with a fork (about 30 minutes). Remove pears from the poaching liquid, and set aside to cool. Continue simmering the poaching liquid to reduce (more on that later).

In a large bowl, sift together the nut meal, flour, baking powder, and salt. If the nut meal isn't ground finely, you can either sift through a larger amount of nut meal to yield 1 1/2 finely-ground cups, or leave as is for a more rustic cake. Set aside.

Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one by one, beating well after each addition. Add vanilla, mix well. Fold in the dry ingredient mixture, stirring until just combined. Spread the batter into the prepared pan. Place the poached pears, cut side down, on top of the cake in a pretty pattern. Bake until a tester inserted in the center comes out clean, about 30-40 minutes. Remove from the oven.

While the cake is baking, continue simmering the poaching liquid until it has reduced to about 1/2 cup (it will be thick and syrupy, and the color will have darkened). When the cake is out of the oven, brush it with this syrup, covering both the cake and the pears. Wait a moment for the syrup to be absorbed, and then repeat. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Majestic and Moist Honey Cake

As you may suspect from the name, this cake has a lot going on. It's boozy, spicy, and very moist. This isn't a simple confection to cap off a meal -- it's more like a light meal in itself. Especially with a cup of tea or coffee.

In Jewish homes, honey cakes are usually eaten on Rosh Hashanah, when the honey symbolizes the sweetness to come in the new year. They're also used to break the fast on Yom Kippur, when tea and sweets can ease you back into a break-fast meal.

But even if you're not Jewish, or it's not the time of year for holidays, you should still make this cake. The honey and liquor and spices come together to give it a great depth of flavor and a tender texture. This cake improves as it ages, and is even better by the second day -- the spices soften, and the honey's ability to attract moisture from the air (it's hygroscopic!) means that the cake gets softer instead of staler as it sits. The crumb becomes even more luscious, and the honey-dark edges turn into an almost syrupy glaze.

I talked earlier about the beauty of the bundt pan, and how it allows cakes that have too much fat and sugar to support their own weight to rise to new heights (and hides it when they don't). This honey cake is one that definitely needs a bundt pan, as well as a bit of special handling to ensure it rises properly. The dry ingredients need to be sifted, a move that doesn't just break up clumps, but also adds air (and, consequently, lightness). Eggs should be at room temperature to give maximum loft, and the final mix should be done with a light hand. Once the cake goes in the oven, try not to disturb it too much until it sets. Although this list sounds a bit fussy, it's really just a few tiny steps to yield a light and moist cake. And even if it does fall, it'll still be delicious.

Honey Cake

adapted from the wonderful Majestic and Moist Honey Cake recipe from Marcy Goldman's Treasury of Jewish Holiday Baking

3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 Tbsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp kosher salt
4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1/2 tsp ground allspice
1 cup vegetable oil
1 cup honey
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
3 large eggs, at room temperature
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup coffee or strong tea
1/2 cup fresh orange juice
1/4 cup rum, scotch or whiskey

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a bundt or tube pan.

Sift flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and spices together in a large bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk together oil, honey, sugars, eggs, vanilla, coffee or tea, orange juice, and booze until well-blended. Make a well in the dry ingredients, and pour in the wet ingredients. Stir or whisk until just combined -- do not over-mix. Pour into the prepared pan, and bake until a tester comes out clean, and cake springs back when touched (about 60-75 minutes). Let cake cool in pan at least 15 minutes, and turn out onto a serving plate.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Swiss Chard and Goat Cheese Quiche

A friend of mine told me that after she had a baby, she kept forgetting to brush her teeth. It wasn't a question of a lack of time, or new-baby distraction (although these were both big themes in her life). It's just that toothbrushing is something that's tied in to a normal sleep cycle. You brush your teeth when you wake up in the morning, and you brush them again before you go to bed at night. In life with a newborn, there is no longer a discernible "morning" and "evening" -- just periods of wakefulness and sleep, scattered over random hours throughout the day and night. When does the day begin and end? Who knows.

For this reason, quiche has become a standard part of my food delivery package to all of my new parent friends. It's good for breakfast, and it's good for dinner. It's great heated up, but it's also fine at room temperature. It's got the protein and fat under-slept bodies crave, but it's also a good landing pad for healthy vegetables.

This particular variation features Swiss Chard and creamy goat cheese, but the template can be used to showcase whatever vegetables are in your refrigerator (or garden). I've made quiches with fresh spinach, thinly-sliced asparagus, smoked salmon and herbed cream cheese, and fresh tomatoes (and many combinations of the above). The basics of any version I make are the custard, which is more delicate than most (which tend to feature far too many eggs), and a bit of swiss or gruyere cheese to meld into it. I also use leeks in every quiche I make to add a savory depth. They subtly melt right in, so that you might not even notice them -- you'll just notice that the quiche is delicious.

Swiss Chard and Goat Cheese Quiche

Inspired by many sources, including Cook's Illustrated, but modified heavily

The exact amount of custard you need will vary, depending on the size of your pie dish and the size of your filling ingredients -- make sure you don't overfill. Keeping the crust well-chilled until baking helps it keep its shape without sagging, and keeps the custard inside. Can you tell I've had custard spills? If your crust does spring a leak, don't worry -- just place a cookie sheet on the rack below it to catch the drips.

1 unbaked pie crust (I generally make a whole wheat version), chilled
2 Tbsp butter
1 large leek, or 2 small, washed and thinly sliced
1 bunch swiss chard, washed, dried, and roughly chopped
2 cups milk or half-and-half
2 egg yolks
3 whole eggs
1/2 tsp salt
pinch pepper
pinch nutmeg
1/4 lb swiss cheese, grated (you can substitute gruyere or emmental)
4 oz goat cheese

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Melt the butter in a large saute pan or cast-iron skillet over a medium flame. Saute the leeks until well softened, about 10 minutes. Do not allow to brown. Remove, and set aside. Add the chard to the pan, and cook, until tender, stirring occasionally (you may want to cover the pan, until the chard cooks down). Set the chard in a colander, and press with a wooden spoon or your hand (once it's cool!) to remove excess liquid. Set aside.

In a large bowl, mix together the milk, eggs and egg yolks, nutmeg, salt and pepper. Whisk gently, until just barely combined. Set aside.

Take your pie plate out of the refrigerator, and scatter the grated cheese over the bottom (the oils in the cheese are supposed to create something of a seal, to keep your crust crisp). scatter the sauteed leeks and chard evenly over the cheese. Break the goat cheese into blobs, and scatter them over the top. Give the custard another stir to re-mix, and gently pour it in. You might not need it all.

Carefully place the quiche in the oven, and bake until only the center inch or so wiggles when you nudge it (about an hour). Remove from the oven, and let set a bit before serving. Can be served at room temperature, but I like it best warm.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Kreplach (aka Jewish Wontons)

My friend Sarah and I share a Jewish heritage, which can be hard to find in the Portland area (where there are more bicycle commuters than Jews). I usually end up at her house for the holidays. These tend to be table-groaning feasts, short on ceremony but long on delicious food. Most recently, these dinners have tended to be from the Sephardic tradition; the foods of Jewish populations in the Iberian Peninsula, and, post-Inquisition, Italy and North Africa. Sarah observed, "I find I like the food of Spain better than the food of Poland." After a few amazing meals full of saffron and artichokes and lemon and almonds, I'm inclined to agree with her.

But while I've enjoyed our olivey tagines and pomegranate fish and orange couscous, every now and then I get a hankering for the heavier, simpler foods of Eastern Europe. Part of it is nostalgia, memories of meals with my Russian Jewish grandparents. But part of it results from the basic charms of peasant food, the allure of what we like to call A Thing Wrapped in Dough.

Kreplach are silky, meat-filled dumpling, similar to wontons. They seem to be the very definition of village cooking, creating a delicious holiday meal out of humble ingredients. You take chicken left over from soup-making, after it's dried-out and spent. You grind it up with mashed potatoes and broth to add back in a bit of moisture, and caramelized onions to reintroduce some flavor. Then you gussy the whole thing up inside a jacket of silky-smooth dough, and float them in some chicken soup. Among Jewish families of Eastern European descent, they're traditionally eaten as part of holiday meals, usually on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Since I stopped eating chicken, I've had to say goodbye to traditional foods like this. But, amazingly, you can make vegetarian kreplach. No, really. Here's the beauty: any vegetarian knows that chicken substitutes are often a bit short on authentic flavor, and the texture's all wrong. But kreplach are built around chicken that's already been boiled in soup, and has lost its moisture and flavor. The meat is ground up, hiding any textural shortcomings. And it's mixed with caramelized onions and potatoes, adding the flavor and moisture that are usually lacking in faux-meats. We've made the chicken and vegetarian versions side-by-side, and even my friends who would sooner gnaw their own finger than try a veggie burger have declared that both versions are delicious.

A bit of warning: like any dumpling, kreplach do take some time. They're best made when you've got an empty afternoon, or an army of kitchen monkeys to help you. But they also freeze beautifully, so you can get the most out of your efforts by making several batches at once. They are most definitely worth it.


adapted from the amazing caterer Pamela Reiss, via a tutorial she gave on egullet
makes about 4-5 dozen dumplings

3 cups flour
2 tsp salt
1 tsp baking powder
1/3 cup canola oil
1-1 1/4 cups warm water

Add the dry ingredients to the bowl of a food processor or mixer, and blend until well-mixed. With the blender going, drizzle in the oil, and then the smaller amount of water. Mix until smooth. Check the consistency -- it should be soft and smooth, but not too tacky. Add the remaining water if it's not smooth enough (or more flour if it's too sticky). Place the dough in a covered container so it doesn't dry out, and allow it to relax at room temperature for least 1 hour.

2 Tbsp oil (or rendered chicken fat)
1 small yellow onion, peeled and diced
1 small red potato, peeled and cut into chunks
1/2 lb boiled chicken (or chicken substitute, either gluten or a product made to resemble chicken breast)
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
up to 1/2 cup stock

Heat the oil (or chicken fat) in a cast iron or saute pan over a medium heat. Add the onions, and cook until well-caramelized (aka just the good side of burnt). This will take about half an hour. Turn the flame down if they're going too quickly -- a nice slow cooking will yield the best flavor.

While the onions are cooking, toss the potato chunks into a small pot and cover with water. Bring to a boil, and simmer until they're tender.

When the onion and potato are ready, put them in a food processor or meat grinder with the chicken. Process until everything is broken down into a rough puree. If you're so inclined, you can also add some of the skin from the boiled chicken, which gets chopped up and contributes a luscious richness to the finished dumplings. Mash the ground chicken and and potatoes and onions together with your hands or a wooden spoon, seasoning to taste with the salt and pepper. Add stock if needed for moistness -- you want to make sure it's not too moist, or else it will soften the dumpling dough. Add just enough stock to make it like a spreadable pate. If you use faux meat, you might not need any stock at all.

To Assemble and Cook the Kreplach:

Take the dough that's been relaxing, and roll it out on a floured countertop to a thickness of 1/4" to 1/8". With a 2-inch round cutter (or drinking glass), cut out as many circles as you can. Pull up the remaining dough scraps, and re-knead into a ball (it's best to do this step now, so that the dough has a chance to relax before being re-rolled). With a tiny ice cream scoop, or two spoons, place a ball of filling (about a tablespoon) onto each dough circle. Fold the dough around the filling to make a half-circle, pressing the edges to seal. Take the two corners and press them together, creating a tortellini shape. Place shaped dumpling on a well-floured cookie sheet. Roll out remaining dough scraps, and repeat the process.

When the kreplach are all shaped, bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Throw in a dozen or so kreplach. They will sink to the bottom, but then float to the top fairly quickly. Once they've all floated to the top, simmer for an additional minute. Remove with a slotted spoon, toss with a bit of neutral-flavored oil (like canola), and spread on a cookie sheet or plate. Repeat until all kreplach are cooked. At this point they can be either frozen for future use, or floated in a bowl of soup and served.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Garlicky Breakfast Fried Rice

There are some leftovers that you choke down, out of a sense of responsibility and thrift. And then there are some leftovers that are better than the original. Garlicky fried rice, topped with a fried egg, is one of my favorite things to do with leftover rice the next morning. And although I used the word "fried" twice in the previous sentence, this isn't the traditional hangover greasebomb breakfast. Yeah, it's got some oil, but it's rich and savory from the garlic, tangy with hot sauce and cilantro, and sauced with a runny fried egg (if you'd like). On second thought, maybe it is good for a hangover.

I'm not entirely sure how and when I came up with the current version of this dish. I had the Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant cookbook years ago, which has an ethnic/regional focus. In the Southeast Asian section, the author said that a breakfast of garlicky fried rice topped with a fried egg and vinegared chiles took him back to the Philippines like nothing else. I think I might have started there, but quickly moved into a more Mexican adaptation.

My current version uses an ingredient that might not be in your pantry: achiote. Also called annatto, they're the seeds of a tropical plant. You can find them in Latin American or Asian markets. Even if you've never cooked with them, you've probably eaten them many times: annatto is used to dye everything from orange cheddar to red-coated roast pork. In home cooking, the hard seeds are heated with oil at the start of a recipe, and then removed. The achiote-scented oil contributes a slightly peppery, nutmeggy fustiness to the finished dish. But you can certainly make this dish without it. I haven't done a side-by-side comparison, but I think it's subtle enough that you won't miss it, especially with everything else going on in this dish.

The recipe below is just a loose outline -- the actual dish tends to vary greatly depending on the contents of my refrigerator. I've made it with short-grain rice, long-grain rice, white and brown. All work well (I think I'm partial to fragrant basmati, but brown rice makes me feel a wee bit more virtuous). I toss cubed avocado on the top when I've got it, or stir in shredded cheese at the end when I want a particularly gooey variation. However you make it, just make it.

Garlicky Fried Breakfast Rice
Serves 2

Like most fried rice made by those who don't have industrial woks, this might stick somewhat to your pan. Just work over a hot flame, frying as quickly as you can. Cast iron seems to work best.

1 Tbsp olive oil
1/2 tsp achiote seeds
1 large (or 2 small) cloves garlic
1 small tomato, chopped (optional)
2 cups leftover rice, somewhat dried out
2 heaping tablespoons chopped cilantro
salt and pepper
2 eggs
lime wedges and hot sauce for serving

Place the achiote seeds and oil in a heavy skillet, and heat over a medium flame. As the oil warms, it will take on color from the seeds. When the oil is very hot (but not smoking) and reddish from the achiote, fish the seeds out and discard them.

Drop the chopped garlic in the hot red oil, and stir quickly as they sizzle. Turn the flame up if needed. When they're lightly browned, add the tomato and fry until the heat comes back up and the tomato softens but doesn't break down (barely a minute or so). Add the rice and cilantro. Stir frequently with a spatula or spoon, breaking up the rice clumps and coating each grain with the garlicky red oil (without mashing them too much). Season to taste with salt and pepper. When the rice is well-oiled and heated through, remove to two plates.

Quickly fry the eggs as you like them, and slide one on top of each plate of rice. Season with a few shakes of hot sauce, a squirt of lime, and additional salt and pepper.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Plum Custard Tart

There are some dishes you want to make because they're just so pretty. I saw this plum tart from Saveur magazine on the lovely blog Orangette a few years ago, and was drawn in by the jewel-dark baked plums peeking out of the smooth custard. I'm generally of the opinion that it's hard to improve upon a fresh, ripe plum, but I followed the recipe and threw them in the tart. The baked fruit was lovely, turning richer and sweeter in the oven. But the custard? Not so much. There was only a shallow layer, and it was dense and rubbery, overwhelming the tender delicacy of the fruit. We finished it (I mean, it still had fruit and cream and sugar), but I didn't mark it down as a recipe I'd be making again.

Recently plums reappeared in the farmer's markets here in the Northwest. I was combing through the internet, looking for things to do with them (there's only so much jam I can make), and came across that tempting picture again. So pretty. So I decided to give it an overhaul, revamping the recipe so that it could deliver on the promise of its luscious picture.

I stuck with the same plums, dusky blue-black Italian Prune Plums. They're nice to eat raw, but they're especially delicious baked. And then I turned to the troublesome custard. I increased the amount, so that the plums would have an ample custardy cushion. I cut out one of the eggs and halved the amount of flour, to give it a lighter texture, and added vanilla for a bit more flavor. The result was lovely. I brought it to my friends with a week-old baby, and they requested the recipe immediately. Any time a new parent would rather spend time baking than sleeping, you know it's good recipe.

Plum Custard Tart
inspired by Saveur, via Orangette, but adapted heavily
makes a single 12" tart

1 recipe tart crust (I halved this recipe, which makes two crusts), chilled
~ 1 1/2 lb Italian Prune Plums (the exact amount will vary, depending on their size and shape)
3 Tbsp flour
1/2 cup sugar
1 cup half and half
3 eggs
1/2 tsp vanilla

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees, placing a rack in the upper third.

Remove the pastry crust from the refrigerator, and allow to soften at room temperature for 5-10 minutes. Roll it out into a round, and press it into a tart pan. Trim off the edges, prick with a fork a few times, and place back in the refrigerator to chill for 10 minutes.

Cut the plums in half lengthwise, and remove the stones . Whisk together the flour and sugar in a medium bowl, and then add a bit of half and half, whisking until it's a well-combined sludge. Add the remaining half and half, eggs, and vanilla, whisking until just combined.

Remove your chilled tart crust from the refrigerator. Place the plums in the crust, cut side down, in a single layer. They'll shrink a bit when baking, so pack them in snugly. Give the custard another whisk to re-mix, and pour gently over your plums. They may float a bit. Place in the oven.

Bake until the plums are soft, and the custard no longer jiggles in the center and is just beginning to brown, about 45 minutes to an hour. Remove from the oven and let cool before serving.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Morroccan Herb Jam

I've never been one to buy a lot of cookbooks. While I love to pore over the pages for inspiration, or drool over the glossy pictures, I have trouble making a purchase. Sometimes I'll talk myself out of it, figuring that although the pictures draw me in, realistically I'll only end up making one or two of the recipes. But even with cookbooks I love, cookbooks that make me daydream about the author becoming my best friend and inviting me to dinner parties, the books stay on the bookstore shelves. Because if I start with buying one cookbook, where and how will I stop? So I stick to the library.

The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen, an amazing cookbook by Paula Wolfert, trumped my cookbook-purchasing hesitation with just one recipe. I checked her book out of the library, made the Herb Jam with Olives and Lemons, and walked over to the bookstore and bought my own copy. I've since made another half dozen of the recipes, and they've all been wonderful.

I can't pretend that this herb jam isn't a good bit of work. While some of the entries in this cookbook earn their "slow" designation because of a long simmer, or a few hours in a cool oven, this one is slow because it takes a lot of labor. You've got to clean and stem a whole mess of herbs and greens, steam them until they soften and shrink disappointingly, chop them up, and then saute them with olive oil and a few spices until they become a smooth paste. But the results are like nothing I've ever tasted.

Wolfert adapted this spread from a traditional Moroccan recipe, in which local greens and herbs are cooked over charcoal embers. The jam has a "green" flavor, but it's also got a surprising depth from the cooking method and smoked paprika (which replicates the traditional charcoal smokiness). The herbs soften and mellow, adding flavor without their customary sharpness. The original recipe calls for adding some oil-cured olives, but the complex flavor of the greens is so lovely that you don't need the distraction.

Moroccan Herb Jam
adapted from Herb Jam with Lemons and Olives, Paula Wolfert, The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen

makes about 1 cup (I often make a double batch)

In addition to being delicious as written below, this recipe can easily accommodate other additions. I've replaced the celery leaves with some Asian celery greens,
swapped out chard for spinach, and added the celery-sharp lovage leaves that grow like weeds here in the Northwest. All make for delicious herb jam.

4 large garlic cloves, halved
1 lb spinach leaves, stemmed (or baby spinach, or chard)
1 large bunch flat-leaf parsley, stemmed
1/2 bunch cilantro, stemmed (~1/2 cup)
1/2 cup celery leaves, or lovage
1/4 cup olive oil
1 1/2 tsp smoked Spanish paprika (Pimenton de la Vera)
1 pinch cayenne (if using sweet Pimenton, omit if using hot)
1 pinch cumin
1 Tbsp lemon juice, or more to taste

Set a steamer basket above simmering water. Place the greens and garlic, and steam until tender (about 10 minutes -- you may need to do this in batches). Set the garlic cloves aside. Press the greens into a strainer to wring out the excess water, and finely chop.

Set a heavy skillet over a medium flame, and heat 1 Tbsp of the olive oil. Press the garlic cloves into the oil, and add the Pimenton, cayenne, and cumin. Stir until sizzling and fragrant (it should take less than a minute). Add the greens and cook, stirring occasionally and mashing a bit with a wooden spoon, until they have begun to break down and become somewhat dry, smooth mixture (~20 minutes). The color will darken a bit.

Remove from heat and let cool. Stir in the remaining oil, making a smooth spread, and season with salt and lemon juice to taste. Serve with flatbread, crackers, or sliced crusty loaves. The flavor improves if you make it a day ahead of time (stir in the lemon juice the day you're serving), but I seldom want to wait.