Sunday, May 19, 2013

Rhubarb Tartlets

I know, again with the sweets. But when the rhubarb finally arrives, it's hard to resist. Last week a friend gave me a few fresh stalks from her in-laws' garden (which, along with a carton of their fresh eggs, made a more-than-generous payment for some last-minute babysitting). And I wanted to turn it into something sweet yet delicate, suited for these delicate spring days.

This isn't some late-summer pie, piled ridiculously high with the season's out-of-control harvest and dripping its ruby juices all over. It's just a whisper of thinly-sliced rhubarb and a hint of a creamy base on a shatteringly flaky crust, all butter and air and sweet and sour. Once you've got your dough on hand (I made mine the night before), the whole thing comes together in no time at all. The crust puffs, the rhubarb softens, and your own little spring dessert package is served.

Rhubarb Tartlets

yields 4 tartlets
with a bit of inspiration from The BBC

1 single crust recipe of nice flaky pie dough or puff pastry (I still am in love with this recipe/method, which is sort of like a rough puff pastry — you'll only need half a batch for this)
1 egg, beaten with a splash of milk or water (aka the egg wash)
1 1/2 tablespoons sour cream or creme fraiche (or, heck, even Greek yogurt)
1 1/2 tablespoons sugar (ideally coarse sugar), plus additional for sanding
~4 stalks rhubarb, thinly sliced on an angle

whipped cream for serving, if desired

Preheat the oven to 425° Fahrenheit. Line a baking sheet with parchment, or grease it well.

Let your dough come to room temperature. Roll out on a lightly floured countertop into a 12-inch by 16-inch rectangle. Trim off any ragged edges, and cut through the midpoints to divide into four smaller rectangles.

Brush the rectangles with the egg wash, right to the edges. Prick all over with a fork, leaving a 1/2-inch unpricked rim on the edges. Mix together the sour cream and sugar, then spread a thin layer on each rectangle, leaving the same 1/2-inch rim on the edges.

Lay down the rhubarb in overlapping slices (if you're so inspired, you could even spiral them in a floral formation, and if you are not feeling it at all you can just scatter them haphazardly). Fold the edges of the crust over, pressing down (especially at the corners) to seal. Brush the crust with another round of the egg wash, then generously sprinkle each tartlet (both crust and rhubarb) with a spoonful of the coarse sugar (I also like to sprinkle the crust part with a small amount of coarse salt too, if you have it, but that part's optional).

Transfer each tartlet to your prepared baking sheet, and bake until the crust is puffed and beginning to brown, ~20 minutes or so. Remove, let cool slightly, then serve with whipped cream.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Teff Brownies

When my friends left town a few months ago for a year of world travel, I was sad to see them go. But happy to inherit a good chunk of their pantry. Since Ken went gluten-free, he'd stocked up on all sorts of flours and starches. I turned the almond meal into Passover macarons, thickened pastry cream with cornstarch, and have been eying the tapioca flour in anticipation of setting summer fruit pies. But after spending the better part of a morning transferring each starch from a plastic bag to its own repurposed-and-relabeled glass jar, I had an unpleasant realization: while I have done my share of gluten-free baking (both on these pages and non-blog-worthy failures), it's mostly been to eat with my friend Ken. Swept up in our shared love of good food and foolhardy kitchen experimentation, I somehow missed that fact that Ken is one of my only gluten-free friend in baked-good-sharing distance. So now I've got fetching little containers of amaranth flour and guar gum, but no real need to use them.

But luckily I've found a way out of my O. Henry-ish moment. Because it turns out that gluten-free baking isn't just about allergies and intolerance and substitution. Sometimes, it's just about baking. Good baking.

I recently heard a gluten-free baker maintain that in a decade all of our cakes will be gluten-free, because it just produces a better product. It struck me as a kind of wishful sour grapes, but there are some grains of truth to it. Because wheat flour, see, is a wonder in the kitchen. But alternative flours have their own alternative charms. And sometimes they hold their own, giving you a different flavor profile and result that can be totally delicious in its own right. As Portland's own (yay!) Kim Boyce detailed in Good to the Grain, there's a whole world of flours out there. And, as I discovered the other night, some of them make delicious brownies.

If there's ever a recipe to try gluten-free, it's brownies. They are, at heart, a study in chocolate and butter and eggs, with just a bit of flour tossed in to liaise those primary elements together. After wondering what the heck I was going to do with a little jar of nutty brown teff flour, I came upon this recipe from Gluten-Free Girl. She notes that teff has chocolatey, nutty undertones, making it perfect for brownies. Plus its a whole grain flour, allowing you to have pretensions of health. Amaranth flour, you're up next.

And if you're looking for another story of something unexpected inside a dairy-filled comfort food, I recently produced a radio story on an FDA standoff over Mimolette cheese. French culture! Tradition! Drama! Cheese mites! You can listen to the whole story over at NPR.

Teff Brownies

adapted from Kitchen Sense: More than 600 Recipes to Make You a Great Home Cook, with gluten-free tweaking via Gluten-Free Girl

4 ounces (aka 1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into pats
2 ounces unsweetened chocolate, coarsely chopped
1 cup sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
100 grams teff flour (a generous 3/4 cup)
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
2 handfuls chopped hazelnuts or walnuts
2 handfuls chopped semisweet chocolate, or chocolate chips

Preheat the oven to 350° Fahrenheit. Line an 8-inch baking pan with greased foil or parchment paper, or grease and flour. Set aside.

In a double-boiler (or in bursts in the microwave), melt the butter and chocolate. Stir to combine, and let cool until it's no longer too hot. Add the sugar, stir, and then add the eggs, stirring in between (mix until the eggs are incorporated, but no need to whip the bejesus out of it — you're not looking to incorporate air). Add the vanilla, stir, then add the teff flour and salt, and stir until combined. Fold in the nuts and chopped chocolate.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan, and spread it out evenly. Bake until the center is just starting to set and the edges pull away from the sides, ~20-25 minutes (I consider over-baked brownies to be one of the sadder kitchen outcomes, so I make sure to check it regularly as it approaches this stage). Remove from the oven, and let cool on a rack. Slice and enjoy.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Salad Niçoise

There's something about a warm, summery evening (even if that summery evening happens the first week of May) that calls out for Salad Niçoise. And lest you think I am making Baseless Sweeping Culinary Pronouncements, I present empirical proof: a few days ago I ran out to the grocery store to get some last-minute Salad Niçoise ingredients, and ran into a friend shopping for the exact same thing. There you have it. It's Salad Niçoise season.

As I've mentioned several times before, I'm fond of salads that push the definition of the genre. Why settle for lettuce and cucumber and a crumble of cheese? The world is your salad bar! Salad Niçoise is another entry into the composed salad genre, an assemblage of substantial cooked (potatoes, eggs), raw (lettuce, radishes) and blanched (asparagus) elements, presented together with some piquant additions (olives, anchovies). As none other than Julia Child poetically attested, "A bountiful arrangement in bowl or platter is so handsome to behold that I think it a cruel shame to toss everything together into a big mess." I heartily agree.

Most Salad Niçoise variations feature tuna, either seared and sliced or simply flaked from the can. I chickened out at the last minute from cracking open a friend's jar of home-canned tuna, due to my own botulism phobia, but the salad was hearty enough without it. As you can see, Salad Niçoise is quite forgiving. I blanched a handful of yay-they're-finally-in-season asparagus, but you can easily substitute green beans, and capers add a piquant note if you don't fancy anchovies. You can even slice up some not-so-French-but-oh-so-delicious buttery chunks of avocado, or scatter some punchy little tomatoes if they're in season. Because a Salad Niçoise, — like a warm, sunny evening — is going to be fairly lovely, no matter what you make of it.

Salad Niçoise

serves 2-3

3 good-sized waxy potatoes, or several handfuls small new potatoes
3 eggs
~12 spears asparagus, tough ends snapped off
several handfuls butter lettuce, washed and dried
handful olives
~6 anchovies
a few radishes, thinly sliced

1 minced shallot, or 1 clove garlic, pressed
1 tablespoon vinegar, preferably a mild one, like sherry
 juice of 1/2 lemon (optional — you can add another splash vinegar instead)
~3 tablespoons olive oil
hefty dollop mustard
pinch sugar
pinch salt
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh herbs — tarragon is especially nice

crusty bread and cheese, to round out the meal

Place the potatoes in a large saucepan, cover with salted water, and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat until it's just high enough to maintain a simmer, and cook until the potatoes are tender but not mushy (~10-20 minutes, depending upon the size of your potatoes). Remove the potatoes with a slotted spoon (leaving the water in the pot), and let cool slightly.

While the potatoes are cooking, hard-boil the eggs: Place in a small saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil over high heat, then cover with a lid and turn off the heat. Let sit in the hot water for 10 minutes, then drain and cover with cold water too cool off.

When the potatoes are done, bring the pot of water back to a boil, and add the asparagus. Let cook just a minute or two, until bright green, then remove, drain, and shock with cold water.

To make the dressing: place the shallot or garlic, vinegar, and lemon juice in a small jar with a tight-fitting lid (canning jars work wonderfully). Let sit for a minute or two to mellow, then add the remaining ingredients. Shake until emulsified, then taste and adjust as needed.

To assemble the salad: Cut the potatoes into thick slices (or just halve them if they're new potatoes), and peel and halve the eggs. Lay the lettuce down on a serving platter, then top with all of the elements, each given its own neat little section of the platter. Give the dressing another good shake, then pour over the salad (the warm potatoes will do an especially good job of drinking it in), and season with salt and pepper as needed. Serve, ideally on a warm summer evening, with some crusty bread and cheese.