Monday, December 20, 2010

Maple-Pear Salad: A Confession

I don't consider myself a foodie.

My roommates find this utterly preposterous, but it's true, I don't. I definitely love to prepare food, and the more extravagant the experimentation, the more fun it is. But I have no insight on how to make flavours fit another in innovative ways. My expertise lies in finding interesting recipes and following their instructions. I could never assemble anything from scratch. Originality is not my forte.

What am I getting to? Neen said it once, and I will repeat it: salads intimidate me.

I don't know why, but I suspect it's because I can't fall back on a reliable recipe to tell me what to do. I guess I could always toss a bunch of rabbit food together with a vinaigrette. But that's not particularly fun.

That's why I was so excited when my father started talking about this salad that he discovered in a holiday cooking issue of Cook's Illustrated. Well, to be perfectly honest, he was complaining about it. The basic idea was that you toss the pears in maple syrup before you roast them to get a sweet, slightly burnt exterior. The problem with that is that you're liable to smoke yourself out of the house. Even if you don't, you'll probably have to chip the burnt syrup off the baking sheet with a hammer and chisel.

We debated the best way to join roasted pears and maple syrup; ultimately, we decided to roast the pears first, and then apply a light coat of syrup to each slice with a pastry brush. I can't compare it to the original recipe, but I can speak to the goodness of this approach. You don't get a crusty exterior on the pears (which is just as well, really), but you can definitely taste the maple syrup on the pear. The blend of such sweetness with blue cheese and walnuts -- ah! Délicieux!

I'm fully aware that this isn't actually going to make me better at creating new foods. But it's certainly going into my répetoire of dishes. And next time I make a big dinner, I can present this funky, funky salad.

Maple-Pear Salad
  • 1/4 cup maple syrup
  • 1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
  • 3 firm pears, preferably Anjou or Bartlett
  • Salt and ground black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons cider vinegar
  • 1 small shallot, minced
  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 bunches watercress, thick stems removed (8 cups)
  • 1 head Bibb lettuce, torn into bite-sized pieces (6 cups)
  • 1 cup crumbled blue cheese
Line a baking sheet with aluminium foil and place it in the lower-middle of the oven. Heat the oven to 500 degrees.

Peel and quarter the pears lengthwise. Core the pears, then halve each quarter lengthwise. Whisk the syrup and ginger together in a bowl.

Original: Toss the pears with 3 Tbs of the syrup mixture and spread them on the baking sheet. Season with salt and pepper, and then roast until they are browned on the bottom (about 15min). Flip the slices and roast for an additional 5min, or until they are tender and deep golden brown.

-- OR --

Alternative: Arrange the slices on the baking sheet, season with salt and pepper, and roast for 15min. Remove from the oven, brush the syrup mixture over the slices, and return to the oven (having flipped the pear slices first). Roast for an addition 5min, and remove.

While the pears are cooling on a baking sheet, whisk together the vinegar, shallot, oil, salt, and pepper to taste into the remaining syrup mixture. Combine the watercress and lettuce in your serving bowl, tossing with the vinaigrette. Scatter the pears and blue cheese and serve.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Delicious Simplicity

Hi. I'm in Switzerland. Just putting that out there for you to chew on. And, perhaps, grind your teeth over.

Neen and I have a long history with this place. It has been one of the only geographical constants of our lives -- we moved to a new country every few years, but would always come here for vacation. Nowadays, it's not as easy to visit as much as we used to, but it's just as well: for one, we don't have to bemoan the changes to our once-tiny Alpine village; moreover, we don't have to worry about the tensions inherent in cramming our entire family in the still-tiny apartment.

That said, it still makes for a glorious escape. Nothing compares to leaving an American metropolis to find yourself in little Crans-Montana. A single step outside (because you would never drive) and you are greeted with icy-pure air and a magnificient view of the mountains all around you. Then come back inside to huddle in the warmth, read for hours, or assemble a nifty jigsaw puzzle. These are all well-loved family traditions.

It goes without saying that our cuisine changes as soon as we get here. That's partly due to the quality of certain products: you wouldn't come to this country and not have the chocolate, the cheese, the wine, or the pastries. That's heresy supreme. But likewise, we wouldn't indulge in quantity as much as we might in the States: groceries are extraordinarily expensive, especially with the exchange rate as it is. Our meals tend to lose a lot of their complexity while here: simple decadence is the result.

But I shouldn't forget: there is one more important factor to consider when baking: the elevation. At roughly 1500 meters, dough and batter behave differently. They will rise more, resulting in much lighter breads and desserts. That's the secret of this cake. The almond cream cake, dubbed "Crans cake" by baby Neen & Spuds, is our traditional fare for the Alps. With a batter composed greatly of whipped cream and almond extract, it offers the essence of light, just slightly sweetened dessert. Its richness is derived as much from its texture as from its taste: fluffy, with a nutty icing that has been ever so slightly toasted. Now, we've never been able to reproduce the texture exactly when closer to sea level. The cake will be more dense; nothing to be done about it. Consider yourselves warned.

Crans Cake (almond cream cake)
for the batter:
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 2 eggs
  • 3/4 tsp almond extract
  • 1 1/2 cups flour
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/8 tsp salt
for the topping:
  • 2 Tbs butter
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup blanched slivered almonds
  • 1 Tbs heavy cream
  • 1 Tbs flour

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Whip the cream until it holds stiff peaks. Beat the eggs in one at a time, very well. Add the almond extract (don't be stingy).

Sift together the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt, then stir in several additions into the batter.

Pour the batter into a greased & floured 8-inch spring form pan. Bake 35min or "until done" (I'm quoting the recipe; I assume that means when a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean. Don't overcook it).

Meanwhile, combine the topping ingredients in a small pan and stir over low heat until blended. Pour over the cake, spreading it out, and bake 10min longer. Let the cake cool on a rack for 20min; it will shrink as it does so.

The recipe indicates that it can be served with sweetened whipped cream ("That's overkill" says my mother). It would probably also work nicely with a mélange of fruit. Ultimately, though, keep it simple: this cake works just fine by itself.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Cobble Cobble Cobble

Here's a quick one, since I just got out of 5 hour final. I ordinarily would wait until I could think of a bit more of a story to tell, but I was asked to post the recipe as soon as humanly possible. And since "as soon as humanly possible" was actually a few days ago, I don't want to dally around anymore.

This is a blueberry cobbler recipe I got from Mark Bittman's "How to Cook Everything." I've spoken before about how I find this man disarmingly charming, and the same, I guess, goes for this food. I don't restrict myself to just blueberries, though. Raspberries! Blackberries! Greenberries! Purpleberries! Cyanberries! Puceberries!

...wait, puceberries? Now I know finals are getting to me.

Blueberry Cobbler
  • 4-6 cups blueberries or other fruits, washed and well dried, peeled and sliced as necessary
  • 1 cup sugar, or to taste
  • 8 Tbs cold unsalted butter, cut into bits, plus some for the pan
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • pinch salt
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
Heat the over to 375 degrees. Toss the fruit with half the sugar and spread it in a lightly greased 8-inch square or 9-inch round baking pan.

Combine the flour, baking powder, salt, and remaining 1/2 cup sugar in a food processor and pulse once or twice. Add the butter and process for 10 seconds, until the mixture is well blended. By hand, beat in the egg and vanilla.

Drop this mixture onto the fruit by tablespoonfuls; do not spread it out. Bake until golden yellow and just starting to brown, 35-45 minutes. Serve immediately.

Naturally, this goes quite well with some vanilla ice cream -- except during a Chicago winter -- or whipped cream. When I made this, I whipped some cream with some sugar and just a touch of honey (y'know, for funsies). The ratio was roughly 1 1/4 cup cream : 1/8 to 1/4 cup sugar : 1-2 Tbs honey, depending on how sweet you want it. I'm told maple syrup is also an interesting addition.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Mmm... doughnuts...

I just reawakened from my Thanksgiving food coma. Have I missed anything?

We have a wonderful Thanksgiving tradition in Do's extended family (which naturally includes Neen and myself). Actually, we have several wonderful traditions. We spend the weekend on a tree farm 2-3 hours from the city, laugh watching his brother-in-law shove his entire arm into the turkey, indulge in Do's fine wines... I could go on and on.

The tradition I'm referring to now, though, is the day after T-day. One massive dinner simply isn't enough for our family. Oh no. After having all the usual foods, we then make a second dinner -- this one comprised of fancy non-standard dishes. Usually an effort between the three of us, it's an opportunity to let loose with our most extravagant hosting/cooking tendencies. Pairing drinks to dishes, sides to main plates, and decorating every bite artistically, we strive to make one continued culinary masterpiece.

The actual menu (as far as I gathered) is below. Maybe Do will enlighten me as to what wines we was serving at the time.

  1. Harissa soup (Do) // Meatballs stuffed with goat cheese (Me)
  2. Korean fish medley (Do's invention) // Bacon-wrapped dates (Me)
  3. Lemon-olive chicken on couscous (Do)
  4. Lime-yogurt mousse (Do) // Tuscan doughnuts (Me)

As you can see, the meal had a bit of Mediterranean citrus framework matched against heartier meat and butter dishes. I'd say it worked well, but it's all a blur right now; I just remember lots of delicious food.

I've already blogged about most of the dishes I contributed, with the exception of the doughnuts. This wasn't the first time I've made doughnuts, but the last batch were a bit of a letdown: the jelly filling made the dough messy and hard to handle and the dough itself didn't rise as much as I'd hoped. I'm told they were good, but eh, I wasn't satisfied.

That's when I picked up this recipe. It's another one from the Urban Italian cookbook. Success! The resulting product had the right density: the dough was light & fluffy from its multiple risings, and the cream filling didn't weigh it down too much. The choice of toppings is nice too: rolling the fried doughnuts around in a bowl of sugar gives them a light coating, and then you can offer your guests a bowl of chocolate dipping sauce on the side.

Don't be fooled, though: this is a serious endeavor. To give you an idea, the cookbook lists it as: "Timing: Major project." The dough needs to proof to a combined three and a half hours. During this time, you'll be jumping back and forth between the filling, the dipping sauce, and the main course[s] (because no, you can't eat doughnuts alone). And let us not even talk about the actual frying! The dangers/fun should be self-evident when standing next to a half-gallon of boiling oil, dipping things in and out of it, and then handling them while they're still sizzling.

And so, without further ado, I give you:

Tuscan Doughnuts

For the dough:
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 2 Tbs plus 2 tsp active dry yeast
  • 1 vanilla bean
  • 4, 3/4 cups bread flour // all purpose is fine
  • 1/2 cup plus 3 Tbs sugar
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 9 egg yolks
  • juice of 1 melon, strained through a sieve to remove all the pulp
  • 1/3 cup brandy or rum
  • 1 Tbs orange-blossom water (or zest of 2 oranges mixed with 1 Tbs brandy)
  • 1 stick butter, cubed and kept cold
  1. Bring 1/2 cup of the milk to room temperature in a medium-sized bowl. Add all the yeast to the milk and stir until it dissolves. Allow it to activate until the yeast begins to foam, about 5min.
  2. Cut the ends off the vanilla bean, split it lengthwise, and scrape out the meat. Combine the vanilla-bean meat, flour, sugar, and salt in the large bowl of a mixer or KitchenAid.
  3. Add the activated yeast (in its milk), the remaining 1/2 cup of milk, and the egg yolks, lemon juice, brandy or rum, orange-blossom water, and butter to the bowl.
  4. Mix all the ingredients at low speed (speed 1 on a KitchenAid) with the hook attachment. When everything begins to combine (just a few seconds), increase the speed to medium-low (speed 2 on a KitchenAid) and continue mixing until all the ingredients are well combined and there are no chunks of butter. The dough should have some play to it: it will be a little bit sticky and stretchy, and will not tear easily.
  5. Remove the dough to a large bowl or container (at least twice as large as the dough), coated with an unflavored nonstick spray or a thin coating of canola oil (or some other neutral oil that won't flavor the dough -- do not use butter). If the container is square or rectangular, be sure to spread the dough out a bit to fit. Cover the container with plastic wrap, being sure to keep the wrap from touching the dough, place it in a warm area (about 70 degrees), and allow the dough to proof until it has doubled in size and become very soft and almost silky to the touch, about 2 to 3 hours.
  6. Turn the dough out on a lightly floured work surface. Beat some of the air out with flat palms, pushing down on all areas of the dough with the heel of you hand. Then form the dough into a large, tight ball, folding and rolling it to make it smooth.
  7. Reflour the work surface and lightly flour the dough. Rool out the dough with a rolling pin, rolling in every direction, until the dough is a more or less circular shale, 1.5 feet or so across and about 1/2 inch thick. There will be air bubbles in the dough; they're important for the consistency of the doughnuts. Continue to flour the dough and the surface as you work to prevent sticking.
  8. Place a piece of parchment paper over a backing sheet and transfer the dough to the sheet by placing the rolling pin (like rolling a skein of wool). Cover the sheet with plastic wrap and place it in the freezer until the dough has cooled and firmed, about 30min. (If you have a really small, Manhattan-apartment-style freezer, and a sheet tray won't fit, cut the dough in half and place it in the freezer on 2 smaller trays.)
  9. Flour the dough on both sides and place it on a lightly floured work surface. roll the rolling pun across the dough to make sure that it's even in thickness (sometimes the dough continues proofing in the freezer). Then, using a round 2-inch cutter, cut out rounds: place the cutter over the dough, press down evenly with the heels of both hands, and then twist the cutter back and forth quickly to release the edges. Remove each round as it is cut. (The rounds will look exactly like dough-colored macaroons.) Save a little bit of the cutout leftover dough for testing the oil later -- and remember you'll need to proof these leftover bits along the rounds.
  10. Place a sheet of parchment paper on a baking sheet and lightly spray with an unflavored nonstick spray or brush with canola or another neutral oil. Place the rounds (and you bits of leftover dough) on the baking sheet, leaving enough room between each on (about 1/2 inch all around) to allow them to proof without touching on another. Spray or brush the tops very lightly with more oil, so that the rounds glisten; this will stop them from drying out, and from sticking if they touch. Place the baking sheet in a warm area and allow the rounds to proof until they have doubled in size, about 1 1/2 hours. When you poke the top of a proofed doughnut, the dough will indent and then spring back; the rounds will be light but firm, Be sure the doughnuts are fully proofed: otherwise, they'll stay raw on the inside when you finish them.

For the pastry cream:
  • 2 cups milk
  • meat of 1/2 vanilla bean (or 1 tsp of vanilla extract)
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 Tbs all-purpose flour
  • 1 Tbs cornstarch
  • 3 egg yolks
  1. Combine the milk and the vanilla-bean meat (or vanilla extract) in a medium-sized saucepan, and bring to a boil over medium-high heat.
  2. Combine the sugar, flour, and cornstarch in a small bowl.
  3. Place the egg yolks in a medium-sized bowl and slowly whisk the dry ingredients into the yolks, so that you have a thick mixture.
  4. Pour about 1/3 of the hot milk into the egg-yolk mixture and whisk unil all the ingredients are combined. Whisk in the rest of the hot milk and pour the combined liquid back into the saucepan.
  5. Cook the liquid over medium heat until the mixture starts to thicken and coats the back of a spoon, about 3min. Remove the cream mixture from the heat and strain it through a chinois or fine strainer into another bowl, so that any lumps are removed.
  6. Immediately cover the cream with plastic wrap, placing the plastic directly on the surface of the cream so that a skin does not form. Refrigerate the pastry cream for at least 2 hours, until it's completely cold. The cream will hold in the fridge for up to 1 day.

For the chocolate sauce:
  • 1/2 cup corn syrup
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 3/4 cup cocoa powder
  • 2 Tbs butter
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 1/3 cup roughly chopped 64% dark chocolate
  1. Combine 3/4 cup of water and the corn syrup in a small pot and bring the mixture to a boil over high heat.
  2. Combine the sugar with the cocoa powder in a small bowl.
  3. Add the sugar-cocoa mixture to the corn-syrup-and-water mixture and bring it back up to a boil, then reduce the heat to low.
  4. Add the butter, heavy cream, and dark chocolate, whisking well until everything dissolves. Increase the heat to medium-high and bring the mixture back up to a simmer, whisking continuously until the mixture becomes a shiny sauce, about 2-3 minutes.
  5. Strain the sauce through a chinois or fine strainer and reserve. The sauce will hold in the fridge for up to 5 days.

For frying the doughnuts and finishing the dish:
  • 1/2 gallon canola oil
  • 3 cups granulated sugar
  1. If the chocolate sauce is in the fridge, set it out so that it comes to room temperature by the time you're ready to serve the doughnuts.
  2. Pour the canola oil into a large stockpot (about 1 foot deep) and over medium heat until the temperature reaches 350 degrees. (If you don't have a thermometer, you can test the oil by throwing a little bit of the leftover dough into the pot. If the oil bubbles when the dough hits it and the dough fries up, you're good to go.)
  3. Remove the chilled pastry cream from the refrigerator and place it in a pastry bag with a pastry tip, being sure to tie the end of the bag.
  4. Fry 4 or 5 of the doughnuts at a time, turning them when they are brown on the bottoms (about 30 seconds), and pressing them down to submerge them in the oil. Lift the doughnuts out with a slotted spoon or spider and transfer them to a paper towel. The finished doughnuts will be very light and yeasty inside and well browned outside, and should pull apart easily.
  5. While they're still warm, fill each doughnut with pastry cream until it starts to feel a little heavy (about 2 Tbs' worth).
  6. Pour the sugar into a large bowl. Roll each doughnut in the sugar so it's lightly coated.
  7. Serve the doughnuts immediately, piled on a serving platter with a bowl of the chocolate sauce on the side for dipping.
Aah... another excellent Thanksgiving under our now-loosened belts...

ps. thanks to Neen & DR for the gorgeous photos.