Saturday, January 30, 2010

Gateau A L'Orange Et Aux Amandes, or Orange and Almond Spongecake with an Apricot Glaze

When I woke up today, it was snowing. Again.

Despite the fact that I had made a tart the day before, I decided to make a cake because it's a nice snow day activity. Break out the fat pants.

I realized that I hadn't yet made anything from Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and I had liked the look of some of the cakes in that book. I sure am making a lot of baked goods considering how much I whined about how many the random number generator picked for me, aren't I?

I wanted something relatively simple, for which I didn't have to buy many ingredients. Flipping through, I noticed the orange almond sponge cake and remembered that I have clementines in the fridge, and I had ground up some almonds for yesterday's tart.

Casting an apprehensive glance at the snow, I preheated the oven. I like what Heather said one day about the snow: "When you can stay home, it's all Winter Wonderland-y, but when you have to go out in it, it's like The Shining." Exactly.

I was thinking along the lines of The Shining, because I had to go to work in a few hours. The fact that I was going to work, though, was one of the reasons I was inclined to make this cake--because I had a way to get rid of it. Did you see how much of that lemon tart I ate? Yeah, this cake was so not staying in the house.

Speaking of snow, when it's snowing and you're a nurse, it's a lot like what Garrett and I said in the previous post about being on call. Before I was a nurse, I used to think that it was kind of cool and exciting that you have to get to work no matter what's happening outside. People will even pick you up! Who cares if they're some potential psycho who randomly volunteers for the job and drops you off with no means of getting home? Cool!

Actually, it's not cool, so while I watched the forecasted 1-2 inches of snow become 4, then 6 inches, I just told myself that if I got stranded in a ditch somewhere on the way to work, at least I wouldn't starve.

I mentioned that I had some ground almonds left over. Of course, it wasn't enough, so I had to make more.

Then it was time to zest some oranges.

Okay, I used clementines, but that's close enough, right? I'm crazy for clementines, but I was worried that these little guys would go to waste.

Next it was time to separate some eggs.
I was supposed to combine the egg yolks and the sugar and beat them until they reached the ribbon stage. I did this yesterday, so when Julia included a reference to instructions for this technique in the recipe, I thought that I was too cool to read that part.

Or even if you do hold on to the little bowl, you'll end up with splatters in your hair, on the fridge, and plastered to the dishwasher?

So the egg yolks and sugar went back into the big bowl. Finally, I gave up. Something was not right here. Maybe I should read Julia's instructions. Ooohhh...You add the sugar gradually, and then mix it only to a certain point, or the yolks will get grainy. Ooohh.
Obviously, I did that part over.

To the properly beaten egg yolks, I added the lemon zest, lemon juice, and some almond extract.

Then the ground almonds, followed by the flour.
So far, no more mishaps. I mixed in some melted butter with no catastrophic results, so it was time to whip some egg whites to stiff peaks.

Again, I did this yesterday, so no problem, right? Well, I do sometimes learn from my mistakes, so I read Julia's directions this time, and I think I got it right.

The egg whites were then folded into the batter, and poured into the prepped cake pan.

The cake cooked in far less time than Julia said it would, but luckily I noticed and took it out in time. You're probably thinking that my oven was the wrong temperature, right? Well, it might have been, because I do have an oven thermometer just like I'm supposed to, but I think it's wrong. It's all good, though, because I didn't overcook the cake.

The cake cooled for 10 minutes, and just like Julia told me to, I took a sharp knife, ran it around the edge, and turned the cake out. Or part of the cake.
I pried the rest out and kind of smooshed the pieces together, but I was so distracted by this that I forgot to flip the cake over. That means that the finished cake has some really appealing cooling rack lines running across the top.

I liked the idea of an apricot glaze, and I just happened to have exactly the needed amount of apricot jam in the fridge. This was combined with sugar and cooked in a sauce pan until it reached 225 degrees. I think. I was too lazy to take pictures at this point, so I was definitely too lazy to get out the thermometer. I'm pretty sure it was right, though.

The finished cake was flipped over ("crap!"), smooshed together again, and glazed. It actually doesn't look that bad.

Or didn't. I was so worried that I'd be late to work because of the snow that I managed to put my lunch box and
my bag on top of the cake and the tart. The cake should still taste pretty good, though. Before I smashed it, it was light and moist, and both the citrus and the almond flavors are noticeable without being cloying or overwhelming.

I had been worried that the glaze wouldn't work, but it's actually perfect. It isn't too sweet, and it is quite nice with the other flavors. You can get bites with the glaze, and bites without the glaze, so the variety keeps the relatively simple cake interesting. Overall it is subtly, Frenchily delicious. And I won't be eating any more of it. I swear.

Gateau A L'Orange Et Aux Amandes
(Orange and Almond Spongecake,
from Mastering the Art of French Cooking)

  • 1/4 pound butter
  • 2/3 cup granulated sugar
  • 3 egg yolks
  • the grated rind of 1 orange
  • 1/3 cup strained orange juice
  • 1/4 teaspoon almond extract
  • 3/4 cup (4 ounces) pulverized almonds (you can use a food processor to do this, just be sure not to process the almonds too long and make almond butter)
  • 1/2 cup cake flour, turned into a sifter
  • 3 egg whites
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
  • Optional: Apricot Glaze (below)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Butter and flour the cake pan, and measure out all of the ingredients.

Melt the butter and set aside.
Gradually beat the sugar into the egg yolks and continue beating until the mixture is a thick, pale yellow, and forms a ribbon when the beaters are lifted out of the mix. Add the grated orange rind, orange juice, and almond extract. Beat for a moment or two until the mixture is light and foamy. Then beat in the almonds, and finally the flour.

Using a rubber spatula, fold the cool, melted butter into the cake batter, omitting milky residue at the bottom of the butter pan. Stir one fourth of the egg whites into the batter, delicately fold in the rest.

Immediately turn into prepared cake pan and run the batter up to the rim all around. Bake in middle level of preheated oven for 30 to 35 minutes. Note: I find that the cakes in this book tend to be done way before the indicated time, so keep a close eye on things. The cake is done when it has puffed, browned lightly, top is springy when pressed, and a needle plunged into the center of the cake comes out clean.

Remove from oven and let stand for about 10 minutes, until cake begins to shrink from the edges of the pan. Run a knife around the edge of the pan and reverse the cake on the rack, giving it a small, sharp, downward jerk to dislodge it from the pan. If it is not to be iced, reverse the cake immediately so it will cool puffed-side up. Allow to cool for an hour or two.

Can be served with powdered sugar, or with apricot glaze (below). You can also use a buttercream frosting.

Apricot Glaze

  • 1/2 cup apricot preserves, forced through a sieve if lumpy
  • 2 tablespoons granulated sugar

Stir the strained apricot preserves with the sugar over moderately high heat for 2 to 3 minutes until thick enough to coat a spoon with a light film, and the last drops are sticky as they fall from the spoon (225 to 228 degrees on a candy thermometer). Do not boil beyond this point or the glaze will become brittle when it cools.

Apply the glaze while it is still warm. Brush any crumbs off the top of the cake, and using a pastry brush, the back of a spoon, or a wide, flat knife, spread the glaze around the top of the cake. Unused glaze will keep indefinitely in a screw-topped jar. Reheat again before using.

So I broke out the mixer and mixed. And mixed. And mixed. This wasn't working. Okay, I'll put it in a smaller bowl, and maybe it will mix up more effectively.

Did you know that if you put something in a little bowl and try to use the hand-held mixer without holding on to the bowl, the bowl spins around right along with its contents and sprays stuff everywhere?

Friday, January 29, 2010

Beets, Salad, and a Lemon Tart

This is the time of year when I begin to crave sunshine, fresh air, buds on the trees, and dresses without tights.

Well, that's not going to happen, so I figured I would make a lemon tart that would give me some bright tartness, the freshness of lemons, and some sunny yellow.

As I previously mentioned, I had some leftover Meyer lemons, and I was beginning to worry that they would go to waste. Also, I was on call and therefore couldn't do anything cool like drinking wine, so I figured I'd bake.

This is what my brother Garrett said about being on call: "It's like walking around with a metal briefcase handcuffed to your wrist. Makes you feel important and awesome, until someone saws your arm off to get it." That pretty much sums it up. Before I was actually a nurse, I used to think that being on call seemed rather cool and glamorous. What was I thinking? It sucks.

Anyway, the 10x10 cookbooks have several tasty lemon desserts within their covers, but I had had my eye on this one for a while, because I like the way egg whites are folded in at the end. More on that later, though.

Mario Batali says, "I love the warm glow this gives me, both in the making and the eating." Yeah, I could go for some warm glow right now.

So I made the pastry dough by toasting (without burning!) almonds, grinding them up, and combining them with flour and sugar.

For some reason, my dough was way too dry, so I added some olive oil. Why olive oil, you ask? I was inspired by the Epicurious recipe for a Lemon Curd Tart With Olive Oil, because it's one of the most amazing things I've ever eaten. My uncle almost had a heart attack over it.

So the disks of dough went into the fridge to rest for a while. Okay, so it's supposed to make one disk of dough, but there was just too much. Something's fishy here...

The three lemons were then juiced.

These are not bleach stains. They are what happened to my cheapo Target shirt when it made contact with the lemon juice. That's okay, though, because I only wear this shirt around the house, for this very reason.

After I messed up my shirt, some egg yolks were beaten with some sugar until they reached the ribbon stage. He didn't say that, but that's what he meant.

The lemon zest and juice were added to this mixture, and placed in a double boiler. Making lemon curd requires that you stir this stuff constantly for 15-20 minutes. Should you fail to do this, you might curdle your curd, which I of course have done in the past. It's sometimes fixable, but it can be nasty.

So just to be careful, I pulled a stool up to the stove and planted myself on it so that I wouldn't get distracted, wander away, and curdle the curd.

It's a lot like when I worked in a restaurant that required that the servers make the whipped cream and plate the desserts. It was totally stupid, but that's a different story. Well, I liked to make the whipped cream, and I would put the cream in the industrial stand mixer, get bored just when I should have been paying attention, wander off, and come back to butter. Eventually, I was not allowed to make the whipped cream.

So when Nick saw this setup, he initially made fun of me, but when I explained what I was doing, he said, "Oh. I would do that, too, then."

Before I did the double boiler part, though, I pressed the tart dough into the tart pan. 
Mario tells you to roll out the dough, but I figure that part of the fun of making a tart crust as opposed to a more tasty pie crust is that you don't usually have to do any dough rolling, as the dough is too crumbly, it works just fine to press it into the pan, and rolling vs. pressing will not effect the final presentation.

The tart dough was initially covered with aluminum foil, which was in turn covered with beans in order to prevent the crust from puffing.

After 10 minutes, I was required to remove the bean and foil contraption. Have you ever tried to do this? It's not easy, people. And if those beans fall all over the inside of your hot oven, it really sucks. Luckily, I managed not to make a mess.

Five minutes later, when the tart crust was supposed to come out, I noted that while I would have liked the bottom to be a bit more browned, the edges were burning. I knew 450 was too high, Mario. I was too lazy to make a foil rim at this point, so I'll just hope that the dough isn't undercooked, because that's gross.

So at this point the egg whites that had been separated from their yolks were beat into stiff peaks.

The stand mixer is wonderful for tasks like this, but I unfortunately bent my whisk attachment on some really hard brown sugar while making Christmas cookies this past year. It was just one more thing in a long line of things I broke that week, including my car and the Christmas tree, and it prompted Hunter to text me this: " You should just sit down for a week. Think of what you've done. Those mojo faeries are really shittin' the juju beans of suck." I really was tempted to have myself placed in a medically-induced come until I stopped being a moron, but I persevered.

But that means that when I use the stand mixer now, it makes a horrible, head-hurting noise. I'm extremely sensitive to sound, but even Nick and Hunter will tell you that the stand mixer now makes a very unpleasant noise.

So when the egg whites had reached the required degree of stiffness, I breathed a big sigh of relief.

The egg whites were then folded into the lemon curd and poured into the crust.

As I had mentioned, this is the part of this recipe that had intrigued me.

The rest of this recipe is rather standard, but I had never seen a tart recipe that called for beaten egg whites to be folded into the rest of the filling.

I figured it had the potential to be fluffy and airy, or it could be spongy and chewy. Obviously, I was hoping for light and airy.

The verdict? Definitely light and airy. It's a lot like eating a very tart, lemon-flavored meringue on a crisp cookie crust.

I got what I was going for with the tartness of the lemons, which Nick liked. He and I agreed that it's a refreshing change from the gelatinous consistency of your average lemon tart. Not that there's anything wrong with that consistency; this is just more refreshing.

Speaking of refreshing lemon desserts, I highly recommend the Lemon Pudding Cake, also from Epicurious. It's very inexpensive, very quick and easy, and I'm absolutely mad for it. You make one batter, pour it all in to a souffle dish, and the finished product is like a very smooth, light lemon pudding topped with a light meringue. Get it? One batter, two textures. It's like magic, and the taste is like a distilled lemon meringue pie.

Do you see that huge missing piece? I would really love to tell you that Nick helped me with that, but I have to confess that I ate that whole piece. Like I said, the light filling is very refreshing but addictive in its tartness, and it's also very light, which tricks your brain into thinking that you can eat the whole tart. Anything with contrasting flavors or textures, like chocolate covered pretzels, tends to be highly addictive, and this tart works on much the same principle. That's why it's going to work with me before it does any more damage. It's a good thing I wear scrubs.

Or maybe it's not. My uncle one day came to a brilliant conclusion, which he dubbed the Hermit Crab Theory. The Hermit Crab Theory states that you will expand to fit the clothes that you are wearing. Therefore, if you wear baggy scrubs to work, like the OR scrubs that labor and delivery nurses are required to wear, you will likely begin to expand in order to fill those scrubs. Unfortunately, I have found this to be true.

So let's talk about something that does not contain a stick of butter--I had mentioned beets in the posting title. I love some roasted beets in the wintertime. I find them quite comforting yet refreshing, and I like them as part of a salad, with pasta, or with some crusty bread spread with a tangy cheese.

Most recipes will tell you that it's really easy to roast the beets, and then peel their skins off with a paper towel the way you would peel roasted peppers.

Well, that's a bunch of crap. I prefer to peel them with a vegetable peeler before they're roasted. That way, you don't have to fool with a burning hot ball of slipperiness that is actually not inclined to give up its skin.

Plus, I like the little marbled patterns that the peeler creates on the surface. Beets are so pretty.

I ate one salad that consisted of beets tossed in some commercial creme fraiche

(which is way thicker than mine, probably because I'm doing it wrong) with some lemon juice, salt and pepper, and served over baby arugula simply dressed with olive oil and pepper.

The next night, however, I made the most awesome salad ever.

Well, not really, but it was pretty good, and it was quite nice to sit by the fire and eat it with my fingers (everything is better when eaten with the fingers).

To make the salad, I made a large julienne of some beets, sprinkled them with salt, pepper and lemon juice, and put a dollop of creme fraiche on the side. Next to this was a simply dressed bed of baby arugula topped with finely shaved shallots, lemon juice, and julienned prosciutto.

All of the flavors were just perfect together. The tangy creme fraiche perfectly complimented the earthy sweetness of the beets, and the peppery, bitter arugula played well with the sweet shallots and salty depth of the prosciutto. I have to confess that I don't always love raw (I know that it's cured and therefore not raw, but you know what I mean) prosciutto, despite the Italian in me. In fact, it's probably downright blasphemous to say that. The prosciutto with the arugula, however, was absolutely perfect. That's what I mean about trying things until you find a way to like them. I figure that just about anything can be delicious when it's in the right context.

You may have noticed the piece of cheese in the background. I made the mistake of going to Whole Foods while hungry the other day. But it turns out it wasn't a mistake, because it made me get the best cheese EVER.

Actually, that title will probably always go to Parmesan Reggiano, but this cheese rocks. It's a goat cheese, but very mild for a goat cheese. It's more creamy and less dry than you would usually expect from a goat cheese, and its subtle flavor reminds me of some kind of cheese that I had in Europe forever ago. Not that that's a very helpful descriptor, but I guess you could say that it tastes like a real cheese, as opposed to the overly pasteurized stuff that you frequently get in the States.

The rind is covered in rosemary, but it's not the kind of rosemary that makes you feel like you're trying to eat a pine tree, but it's getting stuck in your teeth. No, this is the kind of romsemary that makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

Interestingly, this cheese is not so good with my usual crackers. You might notice that there's a box of Kashi crackers in the background of almost every picture. I'm madly in love with them, and eat them with most cheeses, but this cheese only really shone with a baguette. It was also yummy when I licked it off my finger, and I don't always enjoy cheese without a starch vehicle. It's just that good.

The cheese, by the way, is called Brin D' Amour a.k.a. Fleur du Maquis. I have no idea how to pronounce that because I really suck with the whole French thing, so I'll just call it Awesome.

Lemon Tart
(From Molto Italiano)
  • 1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup ground toasted almonds
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
  • 1 large egg
  • Pinch of salt
  • 3 lemons
  • 4 large eggs, separated
  • 3/4 cup sugar
To make the pastry, toss together the flour, almonds, and sugar in a medium bowl. Cut in the butter until the mixture is the consistency of fine bread crumbs. Add the egg and salt and mix well, kneading gently. (I did all of this in the food processor). Form the pastry into a disk, wrap it in plastic wrap, and refrigerate while you make the filling.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Butter a 9-inch fluted tart pan.

Grate the zest of 2 of the lemons. Squeeze the juice from all 3 lemons.

In a large bowl, beat the egg yolks and sugar with an electric mixer until very thick and pale. Beat in the lemon zest and juice. Transfer to the top of a double boiler, set over barely simmering water, and cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture becomes thick, 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool slightly.

Roll out the dough between two sheets of parchment paper into an 11-inch circle. Fit it into the tart pan and trim the excess dough. Prick the bottom of the dough all over with a fork, line with foil, and fill with dried beans, rice, or pie weights to keep the bottom from puffing. Bake for 10 minutes, then remove the foil and beans, and cook for an additional 5 minutes, or until pale golden brown.

Meanwhile, in a large bowl, beat the egg whites until they hold very stiff peaks. Fold them into the cooled lemon mixture.

Remove the tart shell from the oven and reduce the temperature to 325 degrees. Spread the lemon filling evenly in the tart shell. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes, until the filling is thoroughly set. Cool completely on a rack.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Sweet Potato Agnolotti in Sage Cream Sauce

Ooooh...the first French Laundry recipe of 10X10.

This might actually be a good time for a little tallying. So far we have:

Two recipes from My French Kitchen, one recipe from Braise, two recipes from Parisian Home Cooking, one recipe from Molto Italiano, and one recipe from The French Laundry. Just 93 to go.

Also, Ad Hoc came in the mail, so it's time for the "random" number generator.

Page 136 is a selection of 10 different salads. While these salads are not necessarily simple, as every salad is actually a combination of a few different recipes, this seems too lackluster
. Perhaps I'll pick again.

Page 150 is iceberg lettuce slices with blue cheese dressing, oven-roasted tomatoes, bacon, and brioce crutons. The number generator apparently really wants me to make a salad from this book. Well, this looks delicious, and I had actually planned to make it. Althought it is a salad, it's not necessarily a copout because the recipe requires that you make the dressing, roast the tomatoes, as well as make and toast the brioche. Brioche requires an overnight rest in the fridge, and the tomatoes take several hours to slowly roast, so it's a actually not a wimpy recipe.

By the way, did you know that the formerly tacky, pre-foodie, chicken-soup-casserole-era iceberg is making a comeback? It's true. Look for heirloom varieties of iceberg lettuce at the farmer's market this summer. People are once again coming to appreciate its crispy, watery coolness, and its image is being revamped from a holdout found only in steakhouses, to an unapologetic indulgence. Who cares if it has "no nutritional value?"

So, part of the reason that I liked Nick's idea for this project was because I had been interested in getting back to utilizing cookbooks. I love the tactile act of flipping through a cookbook, marking the pages you like, and maybe rediscovering a recipe that did not previously interest you. But I had been cooking from online recipes for so long that when I walked into my Dad's house this past fall with a book rather that a computer, Hunter was amazed. It was time for a change.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with online recipes. Epicurious, for example, has a wonderful (and extensive) collection, and the functions that enable you to organize your recipes are awesome. With a cookbook, however, someone has created a whole world within the two covers, and when you explore a cookbook, you become a part of that world.

A cookbook can tell a story, and it can teach you to be a better cook. Just about every cookbook has some instructional aspects, and their usefuleness depends on your proir experience. For example, I didn't find anything new in Tyler Florence's Real Kitchen. I chose that book because he has a wide range of seemingly solid recipes, and I particularly liked how a lot of his desserts have savory aspects. When I read the French Laundry cookbook and Mastering the Art of French Cooking, however, I learned a lot.

I first took note of Tyler Florence's book when it was listed in this article that my Dad thoughtfully sent in order to assist me in the search for books for this project. The article purportedly enumerated the best cookbooks of the decade, and Tyler Florence's Real Kitchen was on this list, so when I saw it in the library I decided to give it a chance, and I ended up putting it on the list.

I have to admit that I am not familiar with every book on this 'best of the decade' list, but I have perused many of them. And I have to say that this is a list with some notable errors. For example, the French Laundry cookbook is not on this list. How can it not be? Alinea is first on the list, but without Thomas Keller and the French Laundry, Grant Achatz might not have even opened Alinea. Plus, the French Laundry cookbook revolutionized the way cookbooks are published.

When Thomas Keller made the first edition of this book, everyone thought that he was crazy. They tried to tell him that people didn't want such a lavishly illustrated, complicated cookbook. It went on to sell insanely well, of course, as it is a stunning and inspirational book. Had he not made this beautiful book, would Heston Blumenthal have been able to publish the Big Fat Duck Cookbook, and would David Chang have been able to create the Momofuku cookbook? If you think that the French Laundry is challenging, try one of those books.

I've had my eye on this recipe for a long time, and it's one of the recipes that made me really want the pasta maker attachment for my stand mixer. In fact, if I didn't receive it as a Christmas gift, I was going to make it a Merry Christmas To Me present. Don't deny it, you do it too--"One for me, one for them, two for me, one for them..."

Well, I wrecked my car on Hunter's birthday, which is right before Christmas. Not only did I mess up his party, I had to buy an Audi as the Merry Christmas To Me present, instead of the pasta maker. Well, I didn't have to get an Audi, but whether I got an Audi or a Volkswagen, it precluded buying myself a pasta maker. Lucky for me, Nick got it for me.

So you start by roasting a pound and a half of sweet potatoes with four tablespoons of butter. You scoop out the flesh and pass it through a food mill or potato ricer while it's still hot; this is always an opportune moment for some nice scalding. I didn't take a picture of this step, as I thought it would be better to show you how Hunter feels about the food mill:

(This was actually for the French Laundry recipe Warm Friutwood Smoked Salmon with Potato Gnocchi and Balsamic Glaze. It was very delicious, and very buttery.)

Two pieces of bacon are then lightly browned and added to the sweet potato mixure, along with some nutmeg, allspice, and four more tablespoons of butter. I think Thomas Keller is trying to kill me. With butter.

This filling was allowed to cool and then piped onto the freshly made pasta dough. Okay, I admit it--I didn't pipe it, I spooned it. I was too lazy to get out the pastry bag, okay?

Ummm...I also didn't use Thomas Keller's pasta recipe. "Gasp!" Well, I've attempted it before, and I don't like it. I found that the flour-to-egg ration was too high to make the dough workable. I recently read that West Coast eggs are smaller than East Coast eggs; I don't know if this egg thing is true (although I think I read this in the Ad Hoc book), but it might help explain why I found the dough to be too tough.

I used Jamie Oliver's recipe instead, and it turned out beautifully. The best part is--it didn't smell like placenta! The last time I made pasta, I made two different batches, and both times, the dough smelled overwhelmingly of placenta. If you think about it, this sort of makes sense as an egg is sort of like a placenta, but it was still traumatizing for me and my Facebook friends. As I was working with that dough, I had to avert my face and hope that the resulting pasta tasted better than it smelled. Don't worry--it was delicious.

After the filling was "piped" onto the fresh pasta dough, it was time to form the agnolotti. Much cussing ensued. I mean, the part of the French Laundry cookbook that explained the forming of the agnolotti is a column of about 6 inches of dense type, and I couldn't make much sense of it. It got to the point that Nick offered to make an attempt, because I think he started to worry about all of the sharp and breakable stuff laying around within my reach.

I couldn't not be a pain in the butt, so I complicated the situation by not leaving Nick alone until I was quite frustrated with myself, and with the very concept of agnolotti. "Why do these stupid pasta have to be in such a stupid shape, and why does it have to be so stupidly difficult to make them?" Once I let Nick do his thing, though, he figured it out. They don't really look like the ones in the book's pictures, but they'll do. Thanks, Nick.

In fact, they're rather cute. They look like wrapped up candy.

It was now time to prep the chicken cutlets that had been brining. I had loved the idea of pan-seared scallops with the agnolotti, but for many years, half of the time that we ate scallops, Nick and I would throw up. I don't think it was a matter of food poisoning, as we didn't necessarily throw up at the same time. It hasn't been a problem for a while, so I don't know what that was all about, but it's left us a bit wary of scallops. The ones at Whole Foods didn't look so hot, so chicken it is.

Meals that involve Thomas Keller's recipes tend to come together in a concluding crescendo, and this one was no different: we pan-seared the cutlets, dropped the agnolotti in salted water for boiling, pureed warm creme fraiche and a half a cup of butter (for a half-sized sauce recipe) with some previously boiled sage leaves, strained the cream sauce back into the skillet, made some brown butter, wilted some spinach, tossed the cooked agnolotti with the cream sauce, plated the spinach, plated the chicken, strewed the agnolotti around, and drizzled them with brown butter. Whew.

Did I mention that Thomas Keller is trying to kill me with butter? Have you been keeping track? I'm not eating again until my birthday dinner.

I have another confession--I didn't make the fried sage leaves, and I forgot to put the julienned prosciutto on the initial plating.

Well, it was delicious anyway. The filling was sweet and buttery without being too dense and heavy, and the sage cream sauce nicely complimented the sweet and salty aspects of the agnolotti. The pasta was tasty, and if it was a bit too chewy, I'll just tell myself that it provided a nice counterpoint to the meltingly soft sweet potato filling.

The best part was that while you could certainly tell that the sage was there, and it played well with the other flavors, you almost had to go looking for a distinct taste of it. The execution of this recipe wasn't perfect (especially my sucky plating), but it was quite satisfactory. This, too, will go on the repeat list.

Sweet Potato Agnolotti in in Sage Cream Sauce

(From the The French Laundry Cookbook)

Sweet Potato Filling

  • 1 1/2 pounds sweet potatoes
  • 8 tablespoons (4 ounces) unsalted butter
  • 2 slices bacon, frozen and cut into 1/4-inch dice
  • Pinch of allspice or nutmeg
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 recipe for pasta dough

Sage Cream

  • 1/3 cup sage leaves (save the smaller leaves for the fried sage leaf garnish)
  • 1 cup creme fraiche
  • 1 cup Buerre Monte (below)
  • Pinch of Kosher salt, or to taste
  • Canola oil for deep-frying
  • 48 tiny sage leaves (reserved from above)
  • 2 tablespoons (1 ounce) unsalted butter
  • 4 thin slices prosciutto, cut crosswise into fine julienne

For the sweet potato filling:
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Cut the ends off the potatoes and wrap the potatoes individually in aluminum foil, dividing 4 tablespoons of the butter evenly between them. Bake until they are soft, 1 to 2 hours (the time will vary, depending on the size of the potatoes).

Unwrap the cooked potatoes and cut a slit lengthwise in the skin of each. Pull the skin away from the potato and discard. Push the potatoes through a potato ricer while they are hot and place in a saucepan.

Place the diced bacon in a skillet. Cook until it is lightly browned and the fat has been rendered. Transfer the bacon pieces to paper towels to drain briefly, then add them to the potatoes.

Stir the potatoes over low heat, seasoning to taste with the nutmeg or allspice and salt and pepper. Mix in the remaining 4 tablespoons butter. You will have about 1 2/3 cups filling (enough to fill 48 agnolotti). Refrigerate the filling until chilled, or for up to 2 days, before filling the agnolotti.

Divide the dough into 2 or 3 pieces. Run the dough through a pasta machine as for ravioli, but make the sheets wider. The size will vary according to the pasta machine used, but the sheets should be at least 5 inches wide. It is important that the pasta sheet be thin enough so that you can see your fingers through it, but not so thin that it's translucent. Keep the pasta sheets covered, as they dry out quickly.

Lay the pasta sheets, one at a time, on a lightly floured work surface with the long side facing you. Trim the edges so they are straight. Place the agnolotti filling in a pastry bag fitted with a 1/2-inch plain tip. Pipe a 'tube' of filling across the bottom of the pasta sheet, leaving a 3/4-inch border of pasta along the left, right, and bottom edges.

Pull the bottom edge of the pasta up and over the filling. Seal the agnolotti by carefully molding the pasta over the filling and pressing lightly with your index finger to seal the edge of the dough to the pasta sheet; don't drag your finger along the dough to seal, or you risk riping the dough.

When it is sealed, there should be about 1/2-inch of excess dough visible above the tube of filling (where you sealed it). Be certain that you are sealing tightly while pressing out any air pockets. Seal the left and right ends of the dough.

Starting at one end, place the thumb and forefinger of each hand together as if you were going to pinch something, and, leaving about 1 inch of space between your hands and holding your fingers vertically, pinch the filling in 1-inch increments, making about 3/4 inch of 'pinched' area between the agnolotti, or when the agnolotti are separated, they might come unsealed.

Run a crimped pastry wheel along the top of the folded-over dough, separating the strip of filled pockets from the remainder of the pasta sheet. Don't cut too close to the filling, or you risk breaking the seal. Separate the individual agnolotti by cutting through the center of each pinched area, rolling the pastry wheel away from you.

Working quickly, place the agnolotti on a baking sheet dusted with a thin layer of cornmeal, which will help prevent sticking. Don't let the agnolotti touch each other, or they may stick together. Repeat the same procedure with the remainder of the pasta sheets.

For the sage cream, blanch the sage leaves in boiling water for 2 minutes. Drain, cool in cold water, and drain again. Squeeze the leaves dry.

Heat the creme fraiche, buerre monte, and salt over low heat until hot; do not boil. Place the sage in a blender and process to chop it. With the motor running, pour the hot cream mixture through the top and blend thoroughly. Strain the cream into a large skillet. Check the seasoning and set aside.

In a small pot, heat oil for deep frying to 275 degrees. Fry the small sage leaves briefly, just until they are crisp (their color should not change), and dry on paper towels. 

Place the butter in a skillet over medium heat and cook to a nutty brown color; reduce the heat and keep warm. Meanwhile, cook the agnolotti in a large pot of lightly salted boiling water until cooked through, 4 to 5 minutes.

Drain the cooked agnolotti and mix them gently with the sage cream sauce over low heat. Divide the agnolotti among six serving dishes and drizzle with the browned butter. Scatter some prosciutto over each serving and garnish with the fried sage leaves.

Buerre Monte

A little bit of butter helps the emulsion process: Whether you emulsify 4 tablespoons (2 ounces) or 1 pound of butter, just a tablespoon of water will do. 

Bring the water to a boil in an appropriate-size saucepan. Reduce the heat to low and begin whisking chunks of butter into the water, bit by bit to emulsify. Once you have established the emulsion, you can continue to add pieces of butter until you have the quantity of buerre monte that you need.

It is important to keep the level of heat gentle and consistent in order to maintain the emulsification. Make the buerre monte close to the time it will be used and keep it in a warm place. If you have extra buerre monte, it can be refrigerated and then reheated to use as melted butter, or clarified.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Winter Salad, Casserole-Roasted Chicken with Peas and Bacon, Clarified Butter

I made another winter salad before dinner tonight. I had previously mentioned that Molly of Orangette discussed her version of a winter salad in this month's Bon Appetite. I was curious, and I had some celery root left over. Therefore, it was time to give celery root another chance. As I've mentioned, I like to try things a few times before deciding that I don't like them. It's a lot like getting kids to eat like real people--you apparently sometimes have to make them try a food up to twelve times.

Anyway, this salad was again composed of celery root, fennel, and apples that had been made into matchsticks with the scary, scary mandolin. Okay, so what's the deal with the mandolin, right? Well, have you ever cut yourself on one of those things? First of all, it's pretty easy to do. And because the blade is very sharp and it slices off a good portion of the tip of your finger or knuckle, the resulting cut bleeds forever. Ask Hunter--he once bled profusely all the way through dinner. It doesn't help that alcohol is an anti-coagulant, either.

I used to think that I was too cool for the hand guard, but after the fourth or fifth time that I had to quickly grab a paper towel in order to staunch the large amounts of blood oozing from my hand before everything around me was ruined, I decided that I'm not too cool at all. (I've also finally learned that I'm not too cool for the oven timer.)

Hunter will no longer use the mandolin, and Nick finds the mandolin so scary that he can't even watch me use it. He can't even watch the Iron Chefs
use it, and they kick ass. Yesterday, I hadn't yet put the mandolin back in its box after washing it, and Nick asked in a very anxious manner what it was doing out, because he doesn't like to be in its presence, and you better believe he's not going to attempt to wrestle that thing back into its home.

Tonight the matchsticks of fruits and vegetables were tossed with a dressing that contained mustard, salt, pepper, lemon juice, and walnut oil. It was supposed to be hazelnut oil, but Whole Foods didn't have any.

The verdict? It was pretty good, but I'm still not liking the raw celery root. I'm tempted to try it as a gratin, but is that cheating? Anything is good with lots of cream, butter and cheese, right?

The dressing was nice, but the nuttiness of my walnut oil did not shine through. Inspired by the lack of nuttiness, I threw some chopped pecans in there, and that was good. I may in fact make a salad consisting of fennel, apples, this dressing, and some pecans.

Or I might just eat the shaved fennel with lemon juice, olive oil, salt, and Parmesan, as I've previously mentioned. In fact, I've had this a couple times since making the celery root salad. Just so the apple doesn't feel neglected, though, it gets eaten with peanut butter as dessert.

Then it was time for the Casserole-Roasted Chicken with Peas and Prosciutto from Parisian Home Cooking. This recipe called for a 5 pound chicken, preferably with the feet still attached, to be placed in a Dutch oven with some melted butter.

I would just like to mention that I love love love my dutch oven.

A Le Cruset would be nice, but Cook's Illustrated says that the $40 version from Lodge is your next best option. Therefore, that's what I have, and it's just fine with me. This dutch oven transfers heat beautifully (almost too well sometimes), and you can make a delicious and easy meal by searing meat, adding some liquid directly to the vessel, and putting the whole thing in the oven to braise. The pot is pretty enough that the meal can be served in it, too.

Then when the meal is finished and you go to scrub the ominously cruddy bottom, it comes clean like magic, with a fraction of the expected scrubbing required. The dutch oven is also great for soups, mussels, and Jim Lahey's bread. That's another post, though.

So my 3 pound chicken Dutch oven "On one breast." What the hell does that mean, "On one breast?" Well, we kind of balanced it as well as we could, and into the oven it went.

A half hour later, we flipped it onto its other breast. Or what we thought was its other breast, as we had gotten kind if turned around while messing with it. A while after that, it was flipped over onto its back.

Once the chicken was overcooked, we took it out and allowed it to rest. At this point, the excess rendered fat was spooned out, and the shallots were sauteed. The recipe calls for four shallots, but what the heck does that mean? Do you know how much shallots vary in size? We erred on the side of abundance, as we like shallots.

Some creme fraiche and white wine went in there, as did some prosciutto. And no, that's not another one of my errors--the recipe really called for prosciutto. Why the title says bacon, I don't know. Perhaps prosciutto sounded too Italian, so they went with bacon.

I do have a confession to make. At this point, fresh sorrel was supposed to be added. Whole Foods didn't have it, and I'm not sure if I like it anyway. Not that I wouldn't have tried it, because you know how I harp on the subject of trying new or newish foods. If we make this again, I will certainly try to obtain some sorrel, mostly because Michael (the author) writes:

"What I like best about (this) improvisation is the sorrel, which tips the balance away from salty bacon and rich cream, cutting through and lightening the dish. Balance and subtlety is what French cuisine is all about."

The prosciutto cream sauce simmered for a while, the peas were added, and the chicken was carved and plated. Once the sauce was spooned over our legs and breasts, respectively, we pulled the baked potatoes out of the oven and dug in.

Wow, it was good. The cream sauce was tangy and satisfying without being too heavy, the prosciutto was wonderfully salty and flavorful, and the peas popped in the mouth while adding a pleasing freshness. Again--with cream and expensive cured pig product, how can you go wrong?

I mentioned that I overcooked the chicken, but it wasn't by much. And besides, since Nick prefers the white meat, only his was really overcooked, so whatever. I'm just kidding, Nick. 

This meal will definitely go on the repeat list, but if I'm feeling like a fatty, we'll stick with plain old roasted chicken. I used to think that I didn't really care for roasted chicken until I tried Thomas Keller's version. It's so simple, and so beautiful. All you do is dry it very thoroughly, truss it, and cook it at high heat "until it's done." I love that part--"until it's done." Thomas Keller doesn't need to be specific, because he's a mad genius. I also love his story of getting a knife thrown at him early in his career because he didn't know how to truss a chicken.

As Thomas Keller and numerous other people point out, one's ability to roast a chicken can serve as a true litmus test of their abilities as a cook. The same goes for cooking eggs, because the dishes that seem the easiest are often the ones that actually require the most practice, technique, and good judgement.

The butter that went into the dutch oven with the chicken was actually clarified butter. This was something that I had been meaning to make for a while, and I felt that this night would be a good night to do it. Not that it takes much effort or deserves any amount of procrastination. I had almost bought a jar of ghee (the clarified butter used in Indian cooking) at Whole Foods while buying the undersized chicken, but I convinced myself that I couldn't be that lazy.

The benefit of using clarified butter is its clean taste and its higher smoke point. With clarified butter, the milk solids have been removed. As these are what burn when you overheat butter, this allows the butter to be brought to a higher temperature. It is therefore better for pan-searing, and it lasts almost forever.

I followed Alice Waters' directions in order to make this culinary gold. The fact that they left me a bit confused from the beginning was probably a good indication that I should look elsewhere. Did I? No. I just overcooked my clarified butter.

This is what Alice Waters writes:

Melt butter in a small heavy pan over medium heat. Cook the butter until it has separated and the milk solids are just turning a light golden brown, about 10 to 15 minutes. Pour it through a strainer to remove the solids, leaving clear golden clarified butter.

A couple days later, I read this from Thomas Keller:

Put the butter in a small sauce pan and melt it over low heat, without stirring (I stirred it because I hadn't read this, and it was making some freaky noises). Skim off the foamy layer that has risen to the top and discard (I didn't do that). Carefuly pour off the clear yellow liquid (as you know, mine was not clear yellow), the clarified butter, into a container, leaving the white milky layer behind.

Although they pretty much said the exact same thing, Thomas Keller's directions somehow made more sense to me. Next time, I'm definitely going with the Mad Genius, even though I probably shouldn't even need a recipe for something so simple.

As I mentioned, the butter is supposed to remain golden in color, and mine is more like browned butter. But that's okay, as brown butter is delicious, and I'm sure that it will get used. The little crunchy milk solids will also get used somehow, as they are like crunchy little kernels of brown butter goodness. Once I get through this overcooked batch of clarified butter, I will definitely make another attempt. Wish me luck.

Casserole Roasted Chicken with Peas and Bacon
(From Parisian Home Cooking)

  • One 4 pound whole chicken
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 cups fresh or frozen peas
  • 4 shallots, thinly sliced
  • 1/4 cup dry vermouth or white wine
  • 1/4 cup creme fraiche or heavy cream
  • 1/4 pound prosciutto or bacon, thinly diced

Preheat the oven to 475 degrees.
Rinse the chicken and pat dry, Season the chicken inside and out with the salt and freshly ground pepper. Turn the wings under the bird and tie the legs together. Melt 1 tablespoon butter in the oil in a Dutch oven. Lay the bird on one breast, cover, and transfer to the oven. Roast for 30 minutes.

Carefully turn the chicken onto its other breast, cover, and roast another 20 minutes. Turn the bird on its back, cover, and roast another 20 to 30 minutes, or until the juices run clear when a thigh is pierced. Transfer the chicken to a platter, cover, and keep warm.

Skim the fat from the juices in the Dutch oven and return it to low heat. If using fresh peas, add them now. Add the shallots and cook until soft but not brown, about 4 minutes. Add the vermouth or wine, creme fraiche or cream, and prosciutto or bacon, and cook until the liquid is reduced by half, about 4 minutes.

Pour any juices that have collected around the bird into the pot. Add the frozen defrosted peas, which only need to warm through.

Remove from the heat, swirl in the remaining 2 tablespoons butter (we actually left this out), and pour the sauce into a sauce boat. Serve immediately with the chicken.