6.24.2010

the big bake

My grandfather would have turned 80 this month. To honor his amazing, unique legacy, I am posting here an essay I wrote over a year ago, which describes just a small portion of our life with him, and yet speaks volumes about what kind of person he was. He is, and will always be, greatly missed.


The lovely thing about families, any family, is that we all have traditions, which, while we're in the thick of them, seem perfectly normal and are just what we do. But sometimes, through no fault of their own, traditions end. And then we are handed bittersweet hindsight, and in seeing them again through fresh, almost naive eyes, we begin to realize the wondrous, unique nature of things which had for so long simply felt commonplace.

In my family, that lost tradition is our annual Lobster Bake. Years ago, my grandfather - Putt-Putt, as he was known to the family - decided that it would be fun to invite family and friends over at the height of summer for a Maine lobster bake. Innocent enough, except that nothing was ever that simple (or small) for Putt-Putt. This was a man who, for most of his adult years, built fishing boats and spent his summers chasing and harpooning tuna fish in the Gulf of Maine. And in his spare time, he built cars, planes, and houses as hobbies! He was an extreme example of the stereotypical Mainer: hard-working, ingenious, independent, the ultimate do-it-yourselfer. Naturally, his Lobster Bake was of epic proportions.


Putt-Putt was a remarkably generous man, always ready to help out a friend and rarely asking for the favor to be returned. That practice changed in a significant way with the advent of the Bake. He had several lobsterman friends for whom he routinely designed and constructed boat parts - propellers, handliner reels for blue fin tuna fishing, stainless steel tie-off bits, and the like, and he even invented parts for which no suitable commercial version existed. (Like I said, he was ingenious.) In lieu of payment, he began asking that he be repaid in lobsters in the summer - "calling in my markers," he'd say. Consequently, he was able to call in a year's worth of favors at once, resulting in the biggest cache of lobsters I have ever seen at a private residence. For, you see, he needed dozens and dozens of the clawed crustaceans to feed all his guests. By issuing an open invitation to his 'close family and friends,' upwards of 50 people could be expected to show up each year! And of course, Putt-Putt wanted to make sure every person there could dine on two lobsters if they wished; thus, cooking 100 or more lobsters became de rigueur.

Always ready for a challenge, Putt-Putt devised a simple method for preparing his feast. Everything would be steamed in seaweed, as if his party was taking place on any one of the nearby rocky beaches, rather than in his own backyard. (Although 'yard' hardly seems apt to describe the three acres of in-town land his home and all its accessories sat on.) So Putt-Putt built a huge fire pit and topped it with a large steel box piled high with freshly-harvested seaweed, into which was layered lobsters, corn on the cob, potatoes, even eggs and hot dogs! The whole thing was doused with salt water and topped off with more seaweed, then left alone to work its magic.


When everything was deemed cooked, Putt-Putt used a forklift (which, being a Handy Sort of Guy, he just happened to own) to transport the bounty to the eating area. The seaweed would be steaming, the scent of salt and wood smoke was intoxicating, and the anticipation reached a child-like intensity as the culinary treasure chest was opened, with the bright red lobsters, yellow-green corn, and brown eggs and potatoes all peeking out as the layers were exposed. And all of this was done so matter-of-factly that, unbelievably, it really did seem normal, even as we acknowledged its Cornucopic abundance.


And then we would feast. There are few people who need to be convinced of a lobster's charms, but how many know that native corn tastes best cooked in a briny steam bath? Or that lobster juice mingled with sea water produces a baked potato that needs no butter, and certainly no sour cream? Oh, and the eggs and hot dogs I mentioned? Yes, even they taste better with a bit of the ocean in them. It was messy and informal, with pails of napkins and cups of drawn butter spaced along the tables in the grass, and lemonade and beer to wash it all down. There was probably a salad, and dessert too, but who can remember? Because if it wasn't cooked in seaweed over a roaring fire, it barely registered.

There hasn't been a Lobster Bake in several years. It wouldn't be the same without Putt-Putt; those Bakes were so intimately tied to him and who he was that they really aren't transferable. But the memories are vivid, ready for retelling. And as we reminisce we realize that, while lobsters may come and go, none can match the pleasure of those consumed at one of Putt-Putt's Lobster Bakes.

6.23.2010

in love at last


I like foods that seduce me.

I like foods that flirt with my senses, caress my lips as I lean in for that first bite, foods that act all coy and surprise me with unexpected textures and flavors. I love the voluptuousness, the enticing come-hither quality, those foods that are so unabashed at the open display of their charms that I almost blush and have to look away. I love giving in to that feeling of helplessness, knowing that I will eat another bite, and then another and another, because, at that moment, it's all I want in the world. Falling in love with food, and reveling in that experience, is something I will never tire of.

It's the reason that I eat.

It's also the reason I have been so frustrated with apricots.


Oh, don't get me wrong, apricots have been trying their hardest to pull me in. The color, that gorgeous, glowing, soft orange color, with speckles and blooms of fiery pink, stops me in my tracks every time. And then I reach out and pick one up, and my hand relaxes and eases into the fruit's firm roundness, enjoying the intimate sensation of fuzzed, velvety skin nestled against my palm. I'm hooked. And so I buy a bagful, get them home, and then . . .

I try to eat them, and suffer morning-after feelings of letdown and disappointment. The magic is gone, the fruit is a fine fruit, but it just doesn't do it for me. I don't know what, exactly, I'm expecting. More juice, maybe, to make the eating experience match the ravishing plumpness the intact apricot intimates? Or maybe it's the flesh. Maybe it's too firm - it definitely doesn't yield to the slightest pressure with the sweet sigh of contentment that, say, a peach does. Certainly the flavor is part of it. I am never prepared for the zing of tartness that has been present in every apricot I have ever tried. That zing is challenging, a rebuff of sorts, demanding that I get down from the dreamy aerie I have created for what I think an apricot should be, and accept it for what it is.

So, okay, I think, I can do this. I am ready for my apricot affair to begin, I just have to adjust my approach. Since I have pretty much given up on the whole eaten-out-of-hand part, I decide that baking is the way to go. This, I am told, will accentuate the apricot's tartness, so I know I need to add some sweetener. And then I get adventurous, and throw in some herbs. I pour the sweetly glistening fruit onto a circle of gluten-free pastry dough, fold up the edges, and, fingers crossed, into the oven goes my simple apricot galette.


When it emerges, I can feel it immediately. It has a sense about it, the floral perfume of the fruit mingling with the sweet, caramelized scent of the crust, the settled, slightly rumpled look of the apricot segments jumbled about among pools of bubbling, honeyed nectar - this is my apricot experience. (I do, as any polite lover would, turn a blind eye to the crisp, black mess next to the galette, where some juice leaked out of the crust and came out the worse for it. We all have our imperfections.) I gently introduce some honeyed mascarpone and delight in the sweet anticipation of what is to come.

And then we rendezvous, this galette and I, and it is so good. The fruit is tart, to be sure, but tempered by its own fruitiness, plus the herbaceous honey and flaky crust, and once paired with the mascarpone I realize that it shouldn't be any less tart. Also, I am caught off guard by how intense it is, albeit not in a bad way. The fruit tastes, as close as I can tell, like orange. Not in the citrus sense, but like the color. (Which, sometimes, I think we associate with citrus. We are wrong.) Orange tastes like the sun on your shoulders, with a richness that fills your mouth and makes you feel like you are glowing and an energy that makes you want to dance. This is how I feel when I eat the galette, and it makes me swoon.


Upon recovering, I am excited to realize that this affair is not temporary. This roasted fruit is enduring, since minimal tweaking will result in a compote that will pair perfectly with ice creams, panna cotta, yogurt, even pound cake and waffles. Apricots, it seems, have finally convinced my heart and belly to open up to their unique allure. And as so many of us already know, those hard-won romances are some of life's sweetest.


Honey-Apricot Galette
serves 6-8

single batch of gluten-free pie crust dough
 
2 pounds apricots, quartered and pitted
2 Tbsp cornstarch
1/3 cup thyme-infused honey (recipe follows)

2 Tbsp unsalted butter, cut into small pieces (optional) 
1 large egg white, lightly beaten with 1 Tbsp water, for egg wash
granulated sugar, for sprinkling

honeyed mascarpone, for garnish (recipe follows) (optional)

To make:

Preheat oven to 375°F.

In a medium bowl, combine the quartered apricots, honey, and cornstarch, stir to evenly coat the fruit, and set aside.

Between two pieces of parchment (you may want to dust the bottom one with gf flour), roll out the pastry dough to a diameter of approximately 13 inches. Remove the top piece of parchment, and use the bottom piece to transfer the dough circle to a baking sheet (keep it on the parchment).

Pour the apricots with their accumulated juices onto the center of the dough, and gently spread them out, leaving a 1 1/2- to 2-inch border. Fold the edges of the dough up to encase the filling, pinching together any cracks that may form. If desired, dot the apricot filling with butter pieces. Lightly brush the crust with the egg white wash, and sprinkle with granulated sugar.

Bake galette for 45-55 minutes, or until the filling is bubbling and the crust is golden brown. Cool on the pan. Galette can be served warm or at room temperature. Garnish with honeyed mascarpone, if desired.

Thyme-Infused Honey

1/3 cup mild honey
3 sprigs fresh thyme


Place honey and thyme in a small saucepan over low heat, and heat just until honey becomes very liquid. Take off heat, and allow the thyme to steep, stirring and tasting occasionally. When the flavor of thyme is as strong as you like (I like it to be obvious, but not overpowering; takes about 20 minutes), remove the sprigs. (Some leaves will have fallen off the sprigs from the motion of stirring; leave these in the honey.) Set aside until needed.

Honeyed Mascarpone

1 cup mascarpone (alternately, you can use creme fraiche)
mild honey, to taste

In a small bowl, stir together the mascarpone and enough honey to lend a slightly sweet flavor to the cheese. The tang of the mascarpone should still come through - you don't want it as sweet as whipped cream. Refrigerate until needed.

6.18.2010

what we pick up along the way


Did I ever tell you I used to be a pastry cook at a very highly-regarded restaurant here in Maine?

As much as it might have been a dream job for some, it was what convinced me that I wasn't cut out for restaurant dinner service. Partly because of the whole working at night thing, and not getting home until midnight, if I was lucky. This during a period that Josh happened to be working days meant that we never saw each other. So that was no fun.

But mostly it was because I really just wanted to do production, very little of which actually occurred during dinner service. As anyone who has worked in a restaurant will tell you, a lot of food prep happens during the day, which makes it much, MUCH more efficient to get the plates out to the customers in the evening. On the savory side of the kitchen, this translates into ingredients being prepared during the day by prep cooks, but the real cooking happening during service on the line. Line cooks are the rock stars of the savory kitchen.

On the sweet side, however, it's the opposite. Due to the nature of most desserts, production happens pre-service, and the desserts are then simply assembled and plated on the line, with maybe some heating up or bruléeing here and there. So for someone who just wanted to be baking and playing with ingredients all day, the job satisfaction level wasn't very high. True, I got to make some stuff, during lulls in service, or when we needed it now. But whipping out a batch of tart shells or having a massive bowl of ice cream base thickening away on a back burner didn't fulfill my craving to make. A craving that was made even more apparent when the daytime pastry cook had his days off, and I got to take his place.

Being the first to arrive at the restaurant in the morning, when everything was clean and calm, felt luxurious. At 9am a long production list is enticing and invigorating, rather than the stress-inducing event it is when it lands in your lap just as the evening's first customers are pulling up to the restaurant. And finishing a shift with the sweet kitchen fully stocked, rather than depleted and picked over, was a satisfying feeling, regardless of the fact that it would all just have to be made again in the morning. Right then, the fruits of my labor were still visible, and knowing the pleasures they would soon bring to people was a powerful drug.


But with only two pastry cooks in the kitchen, it was clear that I would have to wait my turn before being allowed to move into production full-time. And my colleague was not going anywhere anytime soon. As it was, it only took me about three months to realize that working nights would almost certainly cause me to burn out long before that elusive day job became mine, and so I made the decision to leave while I still loved the industry, even if I didn't love my job.

Anyway, all that was a long time ago. Seven years ago, to be precise. And since then, I got my chance to do lots of pastry production at a local bakery, plus I moved into the realm of entrepreneur/small business owner, something I had never foreseen for myself. Life, in spite of (or perhaps because of) its uncertainty, has a habit of putting you right where you need to be.

But my short stint at the restaurant taught me a lot, for which I am grateful. Some of it I probably could have learned in any number of other eateries. The dance that happens each night in a busy kitchen, the way your body learns to move around and anticipate the motions of everyone around you, the activity that, to an outsider, looks like barely-controlled chaos, but to the participants feels practically choreographed. How the hierarchy of a traditional kitchen works, and how to find your place and make your own way within it. How to plate ten desserts and make zeppole and bring your dirty dishes to the dish station because the dishwashers are too swamped to come get them. All at once. Certainly, none of that was unique to this restaurant.

But there were some other things that I picked up that seem quite proprietary to this particular experience of mine. Such as learning to distinguish between the many varieties of mint in the garden. The merits of doing a complete scrub-down of the kitchen each night. (Honestly. I have never seen such a clean kitchen, restaurant or otherwise!) That picking strawberries or raspberries or the aforementioned mint is just the right thing to quiet one's mind before the rush of the night really begins.


And I learned about cassatta. Now, cassatta at this restaurant was, as with many of the desserts, a reimagined version of classic Italian flavor pairings. There was no cake involved, no bright, unnatural colors, and certainly no marzipan. In fact, it was an ice cream flavor. An ice cream flavor that took the best parts of traditional cassatta (ricotta, candied citrus, and chocolate) and blended them into an impressively rich and creamy ice cream base. It was one of my favorite things to make, not the least because I could freely sample it, as it was gluten-free. (It is an odd experience to make so many amazing sweets every day and not know first-hand what they taste like!)

I have always loved ricotta, due to some lucky childhood experiences with cannoli and broccoli-ricotta pizza, but for quite a while it's been off my radar. But a couple months ago I came across a whole milk ricotta at my grocery store that had just three ingredients in it: milk, vinegar, and salt. No fillers, no preservatives, nothing weird, just the same things I would use if I were making ricotta at home! And it is so creamy! So now there's always a tub of it in the fridge, and I've been having a blast coming up with ways to use it.


Recently, after making the Lemony-Rhubarb Custard Tart, I had some leftover pâte sucrée that needed a final destination. Spur-of-the-moment, I decided I needed cassatta tartelettes. Unfortunately, I couldn't make them quite as spontaneously as I wanted to, because I didn't have any candied orange peel in my fridge. (That has since been remedied!) But as soon as I got the candying part out of the way, these tarts were really quite quick to come together. I blind-baked the shells while the orange peel was simmering away in its sugar bath, and by the time both were cool enough to use, I'd sweetened the ricotta and chopped some chocolate. I like desserts like these - ones that seem sophisticated and complex, but in reality are no harder than your basic birthday cake. Just another trick I picked up during my long-ago stint as a restaurant pastry cook!

Cassatta Tartelettes
This is really more of an idea than a recipe. I only had a small amount of tart dough to use, so made similarly-small quantities of all the components. Obviously, if you made a full recipe of the dough, you could make lots of little tarts, or one large one, and would consequently need larger amounts of everything else. But (annoyingly, I know), I did everything else without a recipe. And was in a rush, so forget to measure everything out for you! So I'm pointing you in the direction of some assistance, if you're not comfortable with the whole wing-it approach. Really, though, once you make this, you'll be able to do it without a recipe next time, too.

To make:

Gluten-free pâte sucrée, rolled out and blind-baked in the tart pan size(s) of your choice.

Candied orange peel (not dipped in chocolate), cut into small pieces. (I cut mine before candying, since it's much more difficult when the peel is thick and sticky with syrup! Also, when I'm going to be baking with it, I don't lay my peel out to dry - I just store it, refrigerated, in the candying syrup. The syrup itself is delicious, so don't throw that away!)

Chocolate ganache, cooled (I used Scharffen Berger 62%)

Plus:
whole milk ricotta cheese, enough to fill your tart shell(s)
confectioner's sugar, to taste
vanilla extract, to taste
almond extract, to taste
high-quality semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped (again, I used Scharffen Berger 62%)

In a small-ish mixing bowl, combine ricotta and confectioner's sugar to sweeten to your liking. Start with a small amount of sugar, and taste as you go - you'll know when it's sweet enough for you. Stir in a couple drops each of vanilla and almond extract, again tasting as you go. You're looking for a hint of flavor, nothing overpowering or even very obvious. Add the chopped chocolate and candied orange peel, adjusting the amounts of each to your personal taste. Do you want the filling thick and chewy with chocolate and citrus? Or do you want those flavors to be a side note to the sweet and creamy ricotta? You get to decide.

When you've got the filling perfectly adjusted, spread it into your tart shell(s). At this point, if the ganache hasn't cooled to room temperature yet, refrigerate the tart(s) while you wait. When the ganache is thick but still spreadable, spoon it over the tart(s) and spread it to completely cover the surface. I don't like the ganache to be thicker than half the thickness of the ricotta filling, at most, but if you really like ganache, you may decide you want a more even ratio. Go for it. Garnish with candied orange peel and refrigerate. Serve cold. Pairing it with strong espresso is optional, but highly recommended.

6.14.2010

when memories fail me


What do you remember?

For me, the answer is almost, "Too much." Not in a bad way, but sometimes in an overwhelming way.

I don't typically think of myself as the type of person who is constantly noticing all the little things around herself. In fact, at this point in my life, it's something I have to be mindful of and remind myself to do, as I'm liable to plow headfirst through my days, barely coming up to breathe. But whenever I'm flooded with memories, spontaneously or of my own calling-up, I'm struck by how much detail is in them.

One whiff of new blacktop and I'm suddenly a child at my grandparents' house on a hot summer day. I can feel the smooth, warm black tar of the driveway under my bare feet as I rush past the old rose bush with its gigantic pale pink flowers scattering soft-as-silk petals everywhere, towards the brick steps leading to the sun porch door, the steps against which I will almost certainly scrape my shin. I can still feel their uneven, ragged roughness, the little troughs the grout lines make between each brick. The storm door's handle is cool, black metal, the push button to open it always sticks. And there's a smell, and a certain feeling surrounding the house, unique to it, almost like it has its own atmosphere, literally and in a more ambiance-like sense, too. And when a memory like this hits me, I'm shocked at how easily I can slip back into the Me that was there - all my grown-up thoughts and feelings slip away, my mood shifts, and I AM that person again. I feel, in the truest and most real sense of the word, that I am back to being a child visiting my grandparents in the summer without a care in the world.

And then it's gone. But for the moment or two that it lasted, it was lovely. Lovely to remember it all, and lovely to know that I still harbor that aware, carefree little person inside myself. And that my childhood is so easily within reach.

And yet . . . this happens all the time. With everything, not just important, nostalgic things that I really want to relive. Is this just the way it is? Does everyone hear an old song on the radio, and immediately they can feel their fingernails dragging across the faint, uneven lines and creases stretching out across the back of the school bus seat in front of them, as the bus bumps over the rutted country roads, each jolt banging their temple against the metal frame of the window they're leaning on, while several rows back the popular kids sing along to that very same song blasting out of an older boy's boom box? Does your memory work like this?

Sometimes, when it seems like I can remember practically everything from my past, it's difficult to sort through it all when I'm looking for a particular memory, one that hasn't been spontaneously triggered for me. This happened today. A brief visit to Twitter brought to my attention the existence of a group of food bloggers getting ready to post essays on the first food they ever cooked. I wanted in, but couldn't seem to meet the only requirement: I couldn't for the life of me remember the first thing I ever cooked! I'm sure the memory is there somewhere, but goodness, it's buried down deep!

I can remember hand-cranking ice cream with my dad in the summer, layering the chunks of ice and dirty gray rock salt around the ice cream canister. I remember kneading and shaping bread beside my mom, with my own miniature aluminum bread pans to make my own kid-sized loaves. Rolling out gingerbread men at Christmastime, applying their raisin eyes and buttons. Picking the wild strawberries that grew along the path leading to my swing set, and using a fork to mush them up; I got just enough "jam" for that day's sandwich. Being at my mother's elbow every time she was baking something sweet, and always, always asking to first smell, then taste, the vanilla extract; I just couldn't wrap my mind around the fact that something so amazingly-scented would not taste just as sweet. Mixing up the apple and carrot "dip" (just natural peanut butter, honey, and plain yogurt) that I loved to make when it was my turn to bring a snack to preschool. I've still got my very first apron, personalized and with a bunny hand-painted on it, and my own kids take turns wearing it in the kitchen now.

If my memories tell me anything, it's that I was always in the kitchen, always up on a chair helping stir or pour or taste. This is wonderful. It also means that I can't find The Day, the one where I first cooked/baked/made something completely by myself. The transition, apparently, from helper to flying solo was so seamless, so natural, that it didn't make that big of an impression on me!

I do, however, remember certain baking landmarks, ones that came later. Deciding to make eclairs from scratch, with real pastry cream and pate choux. I didn't have a pastry bag (and didn't know the ziplock bag trick), so I just used a spoon to shape the lines of batter on my cookie sheet. I was pleasantly surprised when, despite their irregular appearance, the eclairs tasted just as good as I had imagined! And another moment of awe: swirling granulated sugar around in a cast iron pan, waiting for it to do the surely-impossible: melt into liquid gold. I even had an exasperated conversation about it with my dad at the stove, about how the recipe must be mistaken or I was doing something wrong, because there was no way that all this gritty sugar was going to simply heat up and turn into caramel! Until, suddenly, it did. And it was perfect, and I began to believe in a new kind of magic. These early experiences in my parent's kitchen, all before I hit high school, certainly paved the way for the pastry career I would find myself pursuing many years later.

So, you see, I know how it all began, I just can't quite say when it all began. Which means that there's a certain taken-for-granted quality in my personal history, and a tendency to forget just how lucky I am to have spent my life in the kitchen, making good things happen. Fortunately, though, it seems unlikely that I will soon forget many of the details of this sweet life! So there's hope that I may yet unearth that first-cooked memory . . .

Until then, I'll leave you with an image of my first successful caught food. Too bad I didn't cook and eat it!

6.05.2010

overcoming resistance

Do you like bok choy?

If you answered yes to that, you may want to skip the next paragraph - I'd hate to ruin your perfectly nice relationship with this particular cabbage. If, however, you're not a fan, or you believe your affection for it to be beyond the reach and sway of other's opinions, well then, read on. But don't blame me if you can never look at bok choy the same way again.

One night, many, many, many years ago, I had a show-down with baby bok choy. And lost horribly. The bok choy was served whole, per usual, with its green leafy part all wilted and shriveled in towards its limp, bendy white stem. Knowing my family, it was probably flavored with ginger, garlic, soy, or a combination of the three. But even those flavors, some of my favorites, weren't enough to save the vegetable for me. They were dwarfed by the impossible-to-get-around texture: soft, limp sliminess. The slippery leaves that were difficult to bite through and threatened to slip down my throat in long strands, and the stem with its odd sensation of being slightly soft, slightly crunchy. I couldn't eat the stuff - every bite activated my gag reflex. Needless to say, it was a very long, unhappy dinner, the memory of which has never left my mind. And I have never been able to eat bok choy again.

Josh has this theory that food aversions are more a matter of texture than flavor. I had never thought of it that way before, but once he said it, it made perfect sense. There are very few foods that I truly, fundamentally don't like, but for the majority of the ones I have a problem with, it all comes down to the way they feel in my mouth. Bok choy, obviously. Okra is another. Rare meat. Bologna. (Well, okay, that last one is admittedly also about flavor.) It seems a bit odd to me that an off-putting texture could overpower even extremely appealing flavors, but given that eating is very much about the sensory pleasures of the table, it makes sense that I would not want to repeat an experience that left me gagging.

The truth to Josh's theory is exhibited all the time in our children (who, like all children, are the most honest people I know). Kalen will very often decide he doesn't like something, and when pressed to explain why, he usually says, "I don't like the feeling in my mouth." Wylie, while not as articulate (yet), appears to make his food choices along similar lines: he doesn't like rice, or most vegetables if they're cooked and cut into bite-sized pieces, but put it all through a food grinder and turn it into mush, and he'll gobble it right up. Apparently, he just doesn't like the feeling of little pieces of things in his mouth.

The importance of texture in the overall enjoyment of a dish is not a new concept, but it is one that I haven't paid as much attention to in the past as I should have. Because texture can easily be adjusted and changed (the food grinder being just the simplest example of such a transformation), writing off a food forever due to a bad texture experience seems particularly short-sighted, especially coming from a trained cook. As a mother, though, one who is trying to raise good eaters, I've been thinking more about ways to emphasize flavors while downplaying or outright eliminating offending textures. Hopefully, my kids will end up with very few foods about which they can make blanket statements such as, "I don't like bok choy. At all. Ever." Because goodness, the vegetable's been eaten by millions (billions?) of people for centuries - it's got to have some redeeming qualities, right?

So I'm resolving to figure out a way to like bok choy, and I'm open to any and all ideas. Just don't ask me to eat it whole. In the meantime, though, I'd like to share a recent transformative-texture experience.


Recently I bought a pint of Haagen-Dazs Rum Raisin ice cream. Sounds good, right? I had actually been thinking about the flavor for a long time, wondering if anyone made it anymore, since it seems so retro. Suddenly, it appeared at my grocery store, so of course I had to grab some. I was so excited for it, and eagerly scooped it into a bowl, took a bite . . . and discovered that I don't like plump, squishy, pop-when-you-bite-them raisins in my ice cream. I think I had imagined that they'd be more chewy, almost candied (which makes no sense, given that I know they're soaked in rum!), and to be confronted with such an opposite texture, one that was all tender and yielding and moist, was unnerving.


Don't get me wrong, I ate the stuff (yes, the entire pint, but not in as few days as I normally would), because the flavor was still excellent. But all the while, I knew that I could take that flavor and turn it into a texture that I also loved. Which is exactly what I did last weekend.


My solution was so easy that I'm sure other people out there have made very similar ice creams. I simply took my rum-soaked raisins, plus some additional concentrated dark rum, and pureed it. This intense, boozy sauce then got stirred into my ice cream base right before it went into the freezer, and voila! Rum raisin ice cream that's better than the original, in my opinion. No squishy raisins to offend my mouth, lots of flavor distributed evenly throughout the ice cream (which I like better than the random pockets the Haagen-Dazs had), and the addition of vanilla bean to give the confection one more layer of flavor. It's really, really good.


It's also reminded me of how much I like to purée things, and the power of sauces in general. They're common in my savory cooking (I make pestos out of just about any green vegetable, and love a good pan reduction sauce), but they're often the missing element in our dessert course. Like a really well-thought out garnish, though, a good sauce can put the final, perfect touch on an ordinary, every day dessert, making it seem much more interesting and elegant than it might otherwise be. Professional pastry chefs know this like they know how to crack an egg. Being out of kitchens for so long, I had gotten out of the habit of thinking about desserts as an assemblage of components. I'm starting to get back into it now, and am really enjoying the process.

So, to bring this thing full circle, what do you think about a bok choy pesto? It might just be the key to unlocking the elusive pleasures of bok choy for me. At the very least, it would eliminate the limp sogginess that bok choy is forever linked with in my memory. And then, finally, I might be able to concentrate on the taste. It would be great to have another texture victory under my belt, to go along with my rum raisin ice cream.


Rum Raisin Ice Cream
yields 1 quart

Make the vanilla ice cream base:
2 cups heavy cream
2 cups half and half
1/2 cup whole milk
1/4 cup light brown sugar
1 vanilla bean
6 large egg yolks
1/4 cup granulated sugar
pinch of salt

Combine the cream, half and half, milk, and light brown sugar in a medium metal bowl set over a pot of just-simmering water. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean and add those to the cream mixture, along with the vanilla pod. Heat the mixture until hot.

In a small bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, granulated sugar, and salt. Temper the yolk mixture by slowly whisking in a small amount of the hot cream, then add it all back to the cream mixture and cook over the double-boiler, stirring with a wooden spoon, until it is thick enough to coat the back of the spoon (nappe, in technical culinary terms). Be patient and really get the mixture as thick as possible - your ice cream will be all the better for it.

Strain the ice cream base through a fine sieve into another metal bowl, and transfer that bowl to an ice bath. Stir frequently and add ice to the ice bath as needed to quickly cool down the base.

At this point, the ice cream base can be refrigerated for up to three days, until you're ready to churn ice cream. This base recipe actually yields 1.5 quarts of base, so you'll have an extra pint to play around with after you make the rum raisin. I usually just add some vanilla extract and make vanilla ice cream, since it's so versatile and useful to have on hand. But this base is great for any number of flavors, so feel free to experiment!

Make the rum raisin sauce:
3/4 cup raisins
3/4 cup dark rum, divided

Combine the raisins and 1/2 cup rum in a small saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a boil. Soon after it starts to bubble, the rum will ignite - be ready for this! Allow the alcohol to burn off for 30-40 seconds before you put out the flames (by putting a lid on the pan). Cool, then puree. (I used a mini food processor. You could also use a stick blender or regular blender.)

Heat the remaining 1/4 cup of rum in a small saucepan over medium heat. Once it ignites, let it burn until the rum is almost reduced by half, then cover to put out the flames. Cool.

Make the rum raisin ice cream:
Measure 1 quart of ice cream base into your ice cream maker. Add the reduced rum and 1/2 tsp vanilla extract, if desired (dip a spoon in the base to see if it needs more vanilla for your taste). Churn according to the manufacture's instructions.

Once the ice cream reaches soft-serve consistency, pour it into the container you'll be freezing it in. I like to use 1-quart lidded glass bowls. Stir in the rum raisin sauce, working quickly as the ice cream will start melting. Don't worry about getting it all evenly distributed, but try not to have any large blobs of sauce in there or un-sauced portions of ice cream. Press plastic wrap on the surface, put the lid on, and stick the container in the freezer. It's ready to eat once it's firm! Ice cream keeps, frozen, for up to 2 months, but why would you ever let it hang around that long?

6.02.2010

of saving and eating



Have you had enough rhubarb yet?

You know, it occurs to me that seasonal, locavore-type eating is uniquely situated for having that type of question asked about its habits. We eat broccoli, yogurt, cheese, bananas, and carrots year-round, for better or worse. We rarely binge on them, and never to the point that we feel, "There. I've eaten my share for the year." Yet take a regional specialty like rhubarb, or strawberries, sweet corn, blackberries, whatever - you pick your weakness - and during the brief window of their availability in our markets, fields, yard, etc. we feel a strong responsibility to eat as much as possible, while also making sure that we really enjoy every bite. What we don't eat we freeze, can, or heave at our friends and neighbors, desperate to make sure not an ounce goes to waste.

This tendency towards such excessive consumption must surely be hardwired into us, for how else can you explain such irrational behavior as single-handedly eating an entire quart of strawberries in one sitting? (Which I, personally, have done. And do not recommend at all. The case for moderation was made in a very real way after I got quite ill from all those berries.) To riff on Michael Pollan (and Paul Rozin before him), it's the Locavore's Dilemma: how do we find a balance to our eating of in-season-for-moments-in-time foods? Why will I continue to buy rhubarb every time I see it at the market, knowing full well that there are still two bags of the plant, all nicely cut up into uniform pieces, in the freezer from last year? Why must I hoard these foods that I know I'll get to have again next year? (Particularly since I rarely think to pull any out of the freezer to eat when it's not in season. So why the heck am I saving it?)

Josh will tell you that it's because I'm just one of those people who likes to keep things, however neat and organized I may manage to be about it. He's partly right, I'm sure, and it's no doubt emphasized by the strong sense of Yankee thrift handed down to me from my grandfather. (You just never know when you might need something! Better to be prepared!) But I'd like to think it's also emblematic of a greater human condition, one which is shared by more people than just those in my immediate gene pool. Something along the lines of instinctively noticing these fleeting moments of produce perfection, and wanting to savor them to their fullest, while also extending our access to their unique, inimitable flavor. Which, of course, taken out of the locavore context, is what's gotten us into so much trouble, what with the industrialization and globalization of our food supply. But at my house, it just means that I get into trouble for stashing too much fruit in the freezer. Which, really, isn't that much trouble at all.

So, back to the rhubarb, which is still in constant supply around here. I had actually made a silent pledge to refrain from buying any more, but that was before I read Helene's post about her grandmother's rhubarb custard tarts, and got that idea lodged in my brain. But of course, I couldn't just make her recipe. You see, I've also been coming back to an idea I only came across for the first time several months ago: yogurt custard. Oddly, I'd never heard of yogurt custard before. Which makes no sense, since it seems like the easiest thing in the world. Is it a British/European thing that never made it across the pond? Can someone fill me in? But I love yogurt, and we eat tons of it (honestly, it seems like all Wylie ever talks about!), so finding a way to incorporate it into dessert was a no-brainer. I'd also been wanting to come up with a basic gluten-free sweet tart dough (pâte sucrée, for those who like to be technical), and this gave me an excuse to play.

I ended up making a lemon-rhubarb tart that turned out to be one of those foods that is immediately transporting. In this case, it transported me to a warm, sunny afternoon. Even when I ate the tart late at night, or for breakfast the next day, I felt like I was eating the flavors of a leisurely early summer afternoon, outside with the sun warming my shoulders, a chilled glass of something (was it lemonade? Sweet tea?) sitting in the grass next to me. The addition of yogurt was wonderful. You know how some custards are so dense they coat your tongue? Well, not this one. It was silky and creamy, but weightless in the mouth, which was a little surprising, given that I used the richest yogurt I could find. Coddling the softly poached, tart rhubarb, and encased in a tender crust, this custard might be my new favorite. I'll certainly be making more yogurt custards in the future!

But there is one downside to this dessert, if you want to put a negative spin on it: I don't think it's year-round food. True, the crust and custard are season-less, and we all know frozen rhubarb can be had (at my house, at least) in the middle of winter, but the flavors would seem completely wrong any other time of year. There's just something so gentle, and leisurely, and relaxing about it that I can't imagine it tasting right come November.

So, locavores, add this one to your list of gorge-on-now-before-they're-gone foods. And to my saving-for-winter freezer rhubarb? Sorry, but this one's not for you. It seems that your fate lies still elsewhere. But don't worry, I won't throw you away. I do like to save things, after all.


Lemony-Rhubarb Custard Tart
yields one 12-inch tart, or a variety of smaller mixed-size tartlettes

For the Gluten-Free Pâte Sucrée (Sweet Pastry Dough):
8 Tbsp unsalted butter, cold, cut into 1-inch cubes
1/4 cup granulated sugar
70 grams gf all-purpose flour mix 
50 grams white rice flour
40 grams millet flour
30 grams cornstarch
10 grams amaranth flour
1/2 tsp xanthan gum
1/4 tsp guar gum
large pinch of salt
1 egg yolk
3 Tbsp heavy cream

In a small bowl, whisk together the flours, xanthan and guar gums, and salt. Set aside. In another small bowl, mix the egg yolk and heavy cream. Set aside.

Put the butter and sugar in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the blade attachment. Pulse just until you can't see the butter.

Add the flour mixture and pulse to combine. Pour in the egg/cream mixture and process just until everything is combined and beginning to clump together.

Pour the dough out onto a large piece of plastic wrap, and knead it a few times to form it into a ball. Flatten it into a disc, wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

For the Lemon Yogurt Custard:
8 oz thick, Greek-style lemon yogurt (I used this brand, and pushed it through a strainer to get any bits of zest out. You could also get regular plain yogurt, strain out the whey to thicken it, then add some lemon extract and sugar to taste.)
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
3 large eggs
1 Tbsp cornstarch

Whisk all ingredients together, refrigerate until needed.

Also Needed:
Poached rhubarb (I used Helene's recipe, but if you have your own, use that)

Assemble tart:
Preheat oven to 350º.

Roll out the pâte sucrée between two sheets of plastic wrap to a diameter approximately three inches wider than your tart pan. Peel off the top piece of plastic wrap, and use the bottom piece to transport the dough into your pan. Once you have the dough pressed into the pan, gently ease the plastic wrap off. (If the dough gets too warm the plastic will stick and you'll have trouble getting it off - just stick it in the fridge for a bit to cool down.)

Line the dough with a piece of parchment paper, and fill it with pie weights or dried beans. Bake the tart shell until it is golden brown and firm enough that the parchment can be easily removed. (The time will vary depending on the size of your pan, but for a 12-inch pan, it should take at least 25-30 minutes.) Cool the tart shell. At this point, you can wrap it tightly in plastic wrap and keep it for a day or two, until you're ready to bake the tart. Or, just proceed right along with the recipe . . .

Evenly distribute the poached rhubarb in the tart shell, and pour the custard over it. Place the pan on a baking sheet, and bake in a 350 degree oven for 35-45 minutes, or until the custard is set. Let cool. Can be served at room temperature or chilled. Refrigerate any leftovers.
 
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