Tuesday, December 18, 2012

And the jewels do shine

Raggedy blooms
A few weeks ago, a friend of mine had a few of us over for a housewarming. We spent a lot of it plopped down with steaming cups of tea, pouring over her cookbook collection. My friend said that we were free to borrow whichever cookbooks we wanted, that she didn't cook from them much and was mostly content just to read through the stories and recipes and be warmed by them. I didn't take her up on her offer that day, but there was one particular book that stuck with me, Sam and Sam Clark's Moro East.
On dark, drizzly days like the ones we've been having here in Chicago, leafing through its pages is just about enough to warm you. The book provides a glimpse into life at the community garden where the Clarks tended a plot--a year in vegetables, small gatherings, and food shared with friends. Though the Clarks are based in London, their book has the feel of some place warmer, some place arid and sun-kissed. This owes mostly to the friends the Clarks made while gardening. Many of them hailed from the Mediterrannean--Turks and Cypriots who knew a thing or two about grape leaves and sumac and grilled lamb. They and the Clarks cooked together, often over charcoal in the open air right by their neighbouring plots. Many of the recipes in the book are contributions from these friends.
Butternut squashMise en place
I finally asked for my friend's copy just as the temperatures around here were dipping. In return, I snipped her the last few raggedy blooms from the garden out back--something to brighten her new place for a while. By then, it was November. Thanksgiving was just around the corner. I'd been busy writing and hadn't thought much about it. I certainly hadn't placed an order for a turkey. So I started leafing through Moro East, looking for ideas. One of the first recipes I landed on was for something called la caldereta, a bone-in lamb shoulder rubbed with thyme and rosemary and slow-roasted with onions and potatoes. Exactly what I was looking for, and with a pretty name like that, how could I resist? So, that's what we built our Thanksgiving meal around this year, a lamb roast from Extremadura (in western Spain) re-interpreted by a couple of London chefs. It was wildly non-traditional. Think homemade pita bread, chickpea fritters, mint-flecked yogurt, and roasted eggplant scattered with pomegranate seeds. (I don't think our guests minded.)
Crowned with squashJewelled pumpkin rice
Thanksgiving was a while ago now. But weeks after, there's one dish from our meal that I'm still thinking of. It's another from Moro East, a side dish that the Clarks call jewelled pumpkin rice. (They really know how to name a dish, now don't they?) It's not much to look at, despite the name. The colours are those of the late autumn landscape--soft browns, bursts of orange, faded greens. But it really is something. The rice is made spectacularly fragrant by cinnamon, allspice, and cardamon. These go in the pot following the butter and onions and toast for a good long while, perfuming your kitchen. And the jewels buried in the rice do shine--tart, chewy currants, roasted butternut squash, and toothsome pistachios. All this is finished with a splash of buttery saffron water, which lends it a lovely roundness.
The friend who lent me the cookbook was one of our Thanksgiving guests. I was gratified when she told me that we'd cooked things that she'd often looked at but would probably have never cooked herself.
I thought that the rice went wonderfully with the lamb shoulder we roasted. Its sweetness complemented the grassy, gamey notes in the roast. With the onions and butternut squash in this dish, its sweetness is rather assertive. You'll want to pair it with something else that can hold its own.

Jewelled Pumpkin Rice
Adapted from Sam and Sam Clark's Moro East
Note: About the butter. Vegans, you can easily replace the butter that the onions cook in with an equal amount of olive oil (75 g), which is what I did for one of my friends at Thanksgiving. After letting the rice rest off heat for 5 minutes, I then set aside his portion and poured the buttery saffron water on the remaining rice. Just as easily, you could omit the butter from the saffron water. I've since made the rice again, this time going half butter, half olive oil. Surprisingly, the butter didn't make much of a difference.

500 g / 1 lb peeled and seeded butternut squash (the flesh of a 750 g squash), cut into 1/2-inch dice
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
2 tablespoons olive oil
a big pinch of saffron (about 50 strands)
100 g / 7 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided (see note above)
3 inch cinnamon stick
4 allspice berries
1 large or 2 medium onions, thinly sliced across the grain
15 g / 1 1/2 tablespoons dried barberries (or currants)
50 g / 1/2 cup shelled unsalted pistachios
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
300 g / 1 2/3 cup basmati rice, soaked in tepid, salted water for 1 hour
450 ml / 1 4/5 cup vegetable stock

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F. Toss the diced butternut squash with half of the salt and the olive oil. Spread it in a single layer in a baking tray and roast for 30 minutes or until tender.

Mix the saffron with 3 tablespoons of boiling water and add 25 g (about 2 tablespoons) of the butter, which should melt. Set aside.

Heat the remaining butter in a medium saucepan with the cinnamon and allspice until it foams, then add the onion and the remaining half teaspoon of salt. Fry over medium heat for 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally until the onion is soft and starting to colour. Add the barberries, pistachios, and cardamom and cook for 10 minutes more, until the onion is golden and sweet.

Now drain the rice and add to the pan, stirring for a minute or two to coat, then pour in the stock. Taste for seasoning then scatter with the roast squash. Cover with a circle of parchment paper and a tight-fitting lid and cook over high heat for 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for a final 5 minutes. Remove the lid and parchment and drizzle with the buttery saffron water. Replace the lid and leave to rest, off the heat, for 5-10 minutes.
Serves 4-6.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Little luxuries

Surprise Tatin
About two weeks ago, a couple of good friends of mine here in Chicago became parents! This, for me, anyway, is still a little mind-blowing. I feel as though, still being in my mid-twenties and a grad student, I only act like a real grown-up about half the time. Sure, I have obligations. But most days, I don't have to be anywhere at any particular time. I can work at home, curled up in an armchair, barefoot, hair still a mess. I can ease my way into the day with a good cup of coffee and buttered toast, when most people are already shuffling off to work. I can pull together a loaf of sourdough pretty well every week, even mid-week, midway through the day, if I want. So I don't quite feel like I live a particularly grown-up life with grown-up responsibilities. And the thought of having that change anytime soon, of giving up little luxuries like late breakfasts and weekly bread-baking--well, let's just say that I think my friends are brave, brave folks.
So with all this in mind, when I heard that my friend had given birth to a beautiful baby boy, one of my first thoughts was that I should make some good, nourishing food for the new parents. With a tiny, helpless, newborn to care for, I thought, they probably had their hands full. (I might have been thinking of this post.) But I didn't know what to make. What do new mothers eat? Do they crave particular foods after those nine long months, those first sleep-deprived days? I really didn't have a clue. But I knew that my friends and I had at least one cookbook in common between our two kitchens--Yotam Ottolenghi's Plenty. So I asked them to pick something from it that they'd been wanting to try out.
Roasted tomatoes and caramel Rough puff
My friends chose well, really well. Ottolenghi's Surprise Tatin is something truly spectacular, a crown jewel for the dinner table. It, much like its sweeter namesake, involves a puddle of dark caramel and pillowy puff pastry. But instead of the usual apples tucked beneath that buttery lid, it's roasted cherry tomato halves, itty bitty potatoes, sweet onions, and semi-firm goat's cheese that bubble away together in the heat of the oven.
One of the things I enjoy most about tarte tatins is the anticipation--the moments leading up to the end of baking and then the big reveal when you turn the tart out of its skillet. I'm the sort of girl who can't keep away from the oven window, even if there isn't much to see. So though those forty minutes or so of baking feel impossibly long, though they keep me in suspense--heady, tantalizing smells, puff pastry ballooning--they make the end all the more worth it--that moment when you finally get to slip on your oven mitts and get your first peek at what's been happening beneath that flakey dome. And in this case, it might just take your breath away. The onions will have reduced to sticky-sweet ribbons. The caramel and tomato juices will have seeped into the potatoes, leaving them ruby-tinged. The tomato halves will gleam, bright and candy-like. Like I said, a real crown jewel.
Potatoes in a sea of tomatoes Onions added Goat's cheese and puff pastry
And this tart tastes every bit as good as it looks. With each bite you get something a little different. But each is its own discovery--different textures and flavours, harmonizing together in different ways. Sometimes, what you'll get is the sweet-tart intensity of the tomatoes balanced against the richness of the pastry and the gentle creaminess of the potatoes. With other bites, it'll be goat's cheese and the potatoes--salty, earthy, comforting. My favourite sort of bite is one where the sweetness of onions melts into that of the tomatoes right at the edge of the tart--tangy and sweet with just a little crunch from the pastry.
The process of making this tart, admittedly, is not one that you can just breeze through. The tomatoes, onions, and potatoes all need separate preparation before they get nestled together in their skillet. There's also the caramel to cook and the cheese to slice--all that prep can add up. (But once assembled, you can leave the tart in the fridge until you need it--for up to 24 hours.) And you might end up with a sink full of dishes. But this is another reason why I think my friends chose so well. Elaborate and impractical meals are a bit of a luxury on most nights, and with a newborn to care for, my friends, I thought, could use a little luxury. (Plus, I just wanted to drop something off for an excuse to see the baby.) Likewise, if there's someone in your life that deserves a little pampering, you might want to consider this tart. 
Inverted tart

Surprise Tatin
Adapted from Yotam Ottolenghi's Plenty
Note: About the puff pastry. If you're feeling really ambitious, consider making your own "rough" puff. I like this old Gourmet recipe. It makes enough for two of these tarte tatinsAbout the potatoes. Tinier potatoes tend to make for a better presentation here, I think, but I used what I could find--a mix of red-skinned new potatoes and a variety called German Butterball. About the goat's cheese. My go-to is goat gouda, but feel free to branch out.

150 g cherry tomatoes
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus extra for drizzling over the tomatoes
Salt and pepper
500 g new potatoes, really tiny ones, preferably
1 large onion, peeled and sliced thinly
45 g sugar / 3 tablespoons sugar
10 g / 2 teaspoons butter
1 sprig fresh oregano, picked, or a few big pinches of good-quality dried oregano
100 g aged goat's cheese, sliced
1 sheet (about 250 g) puff pastry, rolled thinly

Preheat the oven to 275 degrees F. Halve the tomatoes and place them skin-side down on a baking sheet. Drizzle with some olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place in the oven to dry for 45 minutes.
Meanwhile, cook the potatoes in boiling salted water for 25 minutes or until easily pierced with a knife. Drain and let cool. Trim off a bit of the top and bottom of each potato, then cut into 1-inch-thick discs.
Sauté the onion in olive oil and a little salt for 10 minutes, until golden brown.
Butter a 9-inch cake pan or heavy-bottomed skillet and line the base with a circle of parchment paper. In a small pan cook the sugar and butter on high heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until you get a semi-dark caramel. Pour carefully into the cake pan and spread out evenly over the bottom. Scatter the oregano on top.
Stand the potatoes close together in the bottom of the pan. Press onions and tomatoes into the gaps, season well with salt and pepper, and cover with goat's cheese. Cut a puff pastry disc that is 1 inch larger in diameter than the pan. Layer the pastry lid over the tart filling and gently tuck the excess around the potatoes inside the pan. (At this stage, you can chill the tart for up to 24 hours.)
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Bake the tart for 25 minutes, then reduce the temperature to 350 degrees F and continue baking for 15 minutes, or until the pastry is thoroughly cooked. Remove from the oven and let settle for 2 minutes only. Hold an inverted plate firmly on top of the pan and carefully but briskly turn them over together, then lift off the pan. Serve the tart hot or warm.
Serves 4.

Monday, November 12, 2012

We made an occasion of it

Pommes Anna à la graisse de canard
Some dishes just call for a crowd. I'm thinking here of layer cakes stacked six inches high, of flakey pastries hot from the oven, of soufflés puffed and golden--dishes just too extravagant, too involved, for a weeknight dinner with only one or two at the table. These are dishes meant to be shared, dishes whose goodness you wouldn't feel right keeping all to yourself, dishes that call for an occasion. The trouble is I always find myself with more dishes like this than occasions on which to make them. And so have my friends, apparently, since we've started making occasions out of these dishes instead of waiting for the right ones to just come along.
Butter and duck fat Dipping potatoes Layering potatoes
Take, for instance, dinner on Saturday night. A hunter friend of a couple of friends of mine had bequeathed to them a neatly butchered venison neck months ago, and we had talked a lot then about getting together for dinner and tackling it. But birthdays came and went, and the neck remained in the dark recesses of their freezer. Recently, though, quite possibly when we were all a little tipsy, we decided that enough was enough. We had to cook this thing. It'd be a shame for it to go to waste. So, finally, just this past weekend, we made an occasion of it. Our friends did the hard work of de-boning, trussing, browning, and braising. Octavian and I brought over side dishes and something sweet. We opened some bottles of wine. It was a great night. A venison neck roast, if you're curious, is kind of like brisket. After a few hours of gentle cooking, it has the same tender, fall-apart qualities. (If you're lucky enough to find yourself with a neck roast but don't know what to do with it, you might want to peek around here.)
Potato slices Layering and seasoning Assembly complete
But I have to admit, in encouraging this dinner to happen, I had another motive. There was something else that I'd been waiting to make, and I was confident that that neck roast would provide for the occasion. Remember that disastrous dinner a while back--the one with the saltine panna cottas? Well, not all was lost that night. We may have overcooked the duck, but we at least managed to render and save some fat. It was my one consolation, and I was determined to make the most of it. Hence, the potatoes at our venison dinner--Pommes Anna à la graisse de canard.
These potatoes almost call for an occasion all their own. They nearly stole the show on Saturday, anyway. There's no doubt that they're an indulgence--sliced paper-thin and slicked in plenty of butter and duck fat, they pretty well fry where they touch the pan. Crisp, burnished edges five or six layers deep. Creamy and soft beneath an equally burnished lid. They are something to behold and savour. And made for the right occasion and shared with your friends, what's the harm?
Crispy, golden layers

Pommes Anna à la graisse de canard
Adapted from Louis Gadby via Epicurious
Note: About the duck fat. The fat I had was rendered from six duck breasts and was just enough for the dish. There's lots of discussion about how best to do it here. You can also purchase rendered duck fat from a reputable source like D'Artagnan. Duck fat gives the potatoes a savouriness that you just don't get with butter. However, classic Pommes Anna calls just for butter, so I'm sure that you could do without--it would just be a bit of a different dish. Make ahead. This is a dish probably best eaten still warm from the oven. I, however, got away with making it earlier in the day and reheating it. I turned the potatoes out of the skillet as instructed but lined the plate with a piece of parchment. I then transferred the potatoes with the parchment onto a cooling rack. Reheated at a gentle 300°F for about 20 minutes, the exterior re-crisped while the insides remained moist and tender.

45 g / 3-4 tablespoons duck fat
70 g / 5 tablespoons butter
Coarse sea salt
Black pepper
3 lb Yukon gold or other yellow-fleshed potatoes
1 tablespoon flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, minced

Put the oven rack in the middle position and preheat oven to 400°F. 
Melt the fat and butter in a well-seasoned 10-inch cast-iron skillet over low heat. Remove from heat and pour into a large bowl. Do not wipe the skillet. 
Peel the potatoes and cut crosswise with a mandoline into 1/16-inch-thick slices. Add the potatoes to the bowl with the butter and duck fat--in stages if necessary--and toss to coat. Arrange about a quarter of the potatoes in the skillet in a layer of overlapping concentric circles, starting from the centre and working your way outwards. Season the layer generously with salt and pepper. Make three more layers in the same manner, seasoning each layer as you go. You may end up with five or even six layers, depending on how closely you arrange your potatoes--that's okay.
Cook potatoes over moderate heat for about 15 minutes. Take care--towards the end of cooking, the fat at the edges tends to bubble and fly with some vigour. Press down on potatoes with a wide spatula, then cover surface with parchment paper, and cover skillet with foil. 
Bake until outside edge is golden brown and potatoes in center are tender when pierced with a fork, about 25-30 minutes. Let stand, covered, at room temperature 5 minutes, then carefully loosen edge with a heatproof flexible spatula. Invert a plate with a rim over skillet. Using pot holders and holding plate and skillet together firmly, invert skillet. Remove skillet and sprinkle potato cake with parsley and garlic.
Serves 8.

Monday, October 29, 2012

In two weeks' time

Green cherry tomatoes a-picklin'
Friends, for the past few weeks, I've been hunkered down writing and re-writing, thinking and re-thinking, the very same paper. I've had to set aside all kitchen projects and settle for a string of last-minute, thrown-together meals at the end of the day. And I've still got some ways to go with the paper. But yesterday, looking at the forecast for the week, I broke down and spent half an hour outside raiding the tomato plants. Winter doesn't wait. I managed to find a good two-and-a-half pounds amid that tangle of vines--more than I'd pulled in all season.
This morning, I packed all of those bright green orbs into jars and poured hot brine over them. Now I just have to wait and write. In two weeks' time, I should have a few quarts of pickled cherry tomatoes and, with some luck, a decent draft of this paper I've been working on. You'll hear from me then. Thanks for your patience.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

A good example to follow

Root vegetable pasty
When I found out that I'd be going apple-picking with some friends of mine on the weekend, my first thought was not of pies and jellies but this, "What am I going to make for us all to bring along and eat?" 
I don't know what exactly this was about, but I was almost as excited about the prospect of feeding my friends on our day-trip as I was about the apples to come. Maybe it's just that I'd been wanting to go on an orchard outing like this more or less since I'd move to the city. I'd been picturing it for long enough--a long ride down quiet country roads, creaky wooden ladders, bushel barrels brimming with crisp, dappled beauties, and something homemade packed for eating out in the sunshine. Who knows. I just thought we'd need something to keep our bellies full, to keep us humming out there as we filled up our baskets, and I was tickled by the idea of having something homemade tucked away in my bag for everyone.
Rutabaga, leeks, potatoes Assembling pasties
It had to be something that we could eat without much fuss--no forks, no juices running down our chins and arms, just a few crumbs to brush from our faces, maybe. I toyed with the idea of making homemade granola bars for a bit but decided against it. Too sugary--what we needed was sustenance. And that's when I remembered something I'd been waiting for just the right occasion to come along to make--Nigel Slater's rutabaga and cheese pasties.*
The pasty, as Slater notes, is something that, in one form or another, has been with the English for some time. (It makes an appearance in English literature as early as Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.) But for the most part, it's something associated with Cornish miners--a filling, no nonsense lunch of skirt steak, rutabaga, and potatoes (traditionally, anyway) bundled in pastry sturdy enough to hold its own in your pocket on a trip down the mine shaft. (And wrapped in newspaper, I'm told, a pasty will hold some of its warmth for a few hours.) Theirs, I thought, would be a good example to follow for our day at the orchard.
I don't know what the Cornish would have to say about Slater's pasties--they certainly aren't traditional--but my friends and I (an Englishman among us) were rather pleased. The filling, as Slater says, is gentle. The sweetness of the leeks and rutabaga mingle nicely with the goat cheese. The potatoes add a pleasing, velvety heft. And the pastry, though sturdier than most thanks to the bread flour, is surprisingly tender. Holding one by its thick, crimped edge (as the miners would), you can't help but feel that it's the sort of thing that will warm you to your toes by the time you're through with it.
Baked pasties in a row Flakey Apples from the market
The only disappointment that day was that we didn't actually go apple-picking. Because of the weather we had back in March, most orchards in the area didn't have much in the way of apples and weren't open for picking. So we ended up eating warm pasties in my living room and then heading to the farmers' market. It wasn't nearly as idyllic, but we did find a few apples.

*N.b. as my English friends have confirmed, the `a' in `pasty' is short like in `fast', not long like in `paste'.

Rutabaga and Cheese Pasties
Adapted from Nigel Slater's Tender
Note: About the fat. Traditionally, the pastry for pasties is made with lard. Slater's original recipe calls for half lard and half butter, but I wanted to keep this vegetarian. You could, of course, if so inclined, go for the lard. About the crimping. From what I understand, tradition calls for crimping and turning the dough onto itself, which creates a sort of braid-like effect (there are plenty of videos around that demonstrate the technique). It's a bit tricky and not a technique I've quite mastered (as you can see). I found that brushing the edges of the dough with egg made it more difficult to work with and was in the end unnecessary for keeping the pasties sealed. If you decide to crimp with a fork, however, I'm sure that you'll have an easier time and that the beaten egg will help. Leftover filling. I doubled the recipe and wound up with a cup or so of remaining filling. You could try scaling the recipe back a bit to correct this, but I think the filling is wonderful on its own cold, sort of like a creamy potato salad. Make ahead. You can prepare the pastry and filling a couple of days in advance, if you like, and assemble the pasties right before baking. I suspect that assembled pasties would keep well frozen (for maybe a month or so) and could be baked straight from the freezer.

225 g / 1 scant cup butter
450 g / 3 1/2 cups bread flour
an egg, beaten with a little milk, for brushing

2-3 tablespoons butter
2 large leeks
1 small rutabaga (about 200 g)
2-3 medium potatoes (about 400 g)
1 bushy sprig of thyme, leaves picked and chopped
250 g goat cheese
Pepper to taste

Freeze the butter for a good hour, making it easier to grate.
Grate the frozen butter into the flour using the large holes on a box grater. This is most easily done if you keep the butter in its paper, dipping the cut edge into the flour every now and again to stop it sticking on the grater. Add a good half teaspoon of sea salt. Stir the butter into the flour along with enough cold water to make a firm but tender dough--about 13-15 tablespoons. Turn the dough out on the counter and pat it into a rough disc. Wrap it well in plastic wrap and leave it to rest in the fridge for at least 20 minutes (or up to a day or two).
Meanwhile, trim the leeks of their tough, green tops and slit them lengthwise, not quite all the way through. Rinse them thoroughly under the tap, fanning out their layers to flush away any trapped dirt. Trim them of their root end, finish the lengthwise cut, then cut them into thin slices. Let them soften in the butter in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat. Placing a layer of wax paper over the top, then covering with a lid will encourage them to steam a little and stop them colouring too quickly. Stir occasionally to prevent sticking and burning.
Peel the rutabaga and the potatoes, cut them to a half-inch dice, and boil in salted water for ten minutes. They should be just tender and cooked through. Drain.
When the leeks are soft, 8-10 minutes, mix them with the rutabaga and potatoes and season generously with black pepper and the chopped thyme. Crumble in the goat cheese. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
Divide the pastry into six equal pieces. Roll each piece into a disk about 7 1/2 inches in diameter. Brush the edges with beaten egg and milk, then pile each disk with some filling, about a 1/2 cup. Fold the dough over to make a semi-circle, sealing and crimping the edges tightly. Transfer to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Brush the pasties with beaten egg and milk, then pierce the crust of each pasty a couple of times to make steam holes. Bake for fifteen minutes, then decrease the heat to 350 degrees F and bake for forty-five minutes or so, until golden.
Serves 6.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Breaths held, fingers crossed

Assembling the panna cotta
When Octavian and I have friends over for dinner, we tend to be a little bold, a little reckless about it. We tend, that is, to turn to that stack of untried recipes, to those intriguing and unfamiliar methods we've only read about, and just go for it, breaths held, fingers crossed. And for the most part, it's worked out for us. Dinner never gets to the table on time, but luck has been on our side. 
That wasn't the case last Friday. Last Friday, cooking for friends was just disaster after disaster. First, our beloved workhorse of a santoku broke just as we were lining up some vegetables for chopping. Then the instant-read thermometer went berserk. And, of course, we found this out too late and wound up with some miserably overcooked duck. That was pretty disappointing. But the strangest and most spectacular failure of all that night was definitely reserved for dessert.
Concord grapes Stewing grapes Grape juice!
Christina Tosi's saltine panna cotta was one of the first desserts to be put on the menu at Ko (one of the more upscale outposts of David Chang's Momofuku empire). And sitting atop a layer of crumbly, peanut-brittle-studded nut crunch and a generous puddle of homemade concord grape jelly, this salty-sweet panna cotta should have been grand--a gussied-up version of an after-school-snack favourite. So I don't really know what happened.
It all looked like it might go just fine when I did a test plating early in the afternoon. I had just set the nut crunch in the jelly and was trying to unmold a panna cotta. I dipped the glass in hot water for a few seconds as directed and then inverted it, hoping the panna cotta would just slide out. I gave it a bit of a tap just to be sure. And it did come out--it just wasn't set and so collapsed on the plate into a sad puddle, dripping down the sides of my grape-jelly-nut-crunch stack.  This might not have been so bad--I could have just layered nut crunch and jelly into the remaining glasses--but it turned out this panna cotta was not just puddle-prone but way too salty. So I put some more saltines in the oven to toast and dashed to the store for more cream. I had just enough time to make another batch.
Grape jelly! Grape jelly mound
But I wouldn't have bothered had I known what was to come. We discovered this at the table after dinner--though the grape jelly was fine on its own, rather good in fact, together with the panna cotta, it started a volatile chemical reaction in our mouths. It stung on the tongue, in a sort of effervescent way, kind of like Pop Rocks, though not quite as explosive. And maybe this wouldn't even have been so bad--the reaction, admittedly, was kind of cool--but the effervescence made it impossible to taste the concord grapes, and peanut butter and saltines just aren't quite the same without grape jelly.
So I'm not quite sure what to say about last Friday--except that I wish things had gone better, at least for our friends' sake. I guess this sort of thing was just bound to happen with that bit of boldness, that bit of recklessness in our kitchen. I just never expected so much to go so wrong all at once. But even with Friday's disasters still smarting, I think I can say that it's unlikely that we'll change the way we cook for our friends any time soon. We'll admit it--we kind of like bold and reckless.
Mise en place for nut crunch Toasted saltines for panna cotta
P.S. If anyone has any insight into what could have happened with the grape jelly, I'd appreciate it. Fellow food geeks, I'm looking at you.

Technical Notes for Milk Bar's Saltine Panna Cotta

For the first time cooking from this book, I found that I was hitting snags and inaccuracies all along the way. It was more than a little disappointing.
  • Concord grape juice: the juice calls for 675 g or two quarts of grapes. I portioned out my grapes by weight, even though 675 g was far less than the two quarts called for. Subsequently,  I ended up with far less juice than expected.
  • Concord grape jelly: it may just be that I didn't cook the jelly for quite long enough after it came to a boil, but for whatever reason, it was a little gritty, as though the pectin NH or the sugar hadn't quite dissolved in cooking.
  • Nut crunch: this was by all counts delicious, though mine looked quite a bit drier than it is pictured in the book.
  • Saltine panna cotta: Tosi recommends the use of silicone moulds, and having tried and failed with glasses and ramekins, I second that. These panna cotta will barely set and call for a light hand. Also, the recipe calls for 12 g or 1 tablespoon of salt, which I think has to be a mistake. My first batch of panna cotta was inedible. With only a 1/2 teaspoon of salt, the second batch was much better.
  • Pop Rocks grape jelly: like I said in the post - grape jelly + panna cotta + tongue = Pop Rocks (sort of)! I don't have the food science background to explain what could have happened.

Friday, August 31, 2012

A happy coincidence

Slice of Vollkornbrot
Berlin, at least as I experienced it, is a city with a complicated personality, one that I feel I can't really have begun to fathom having had only two weeks there. I think I'd need more time, a lot more time, to wander its streets and to piece together what I'd find, to really say anything definitive. Still, I'll say this much--Berlin is a city that resists easy definition, a city that's a lot of things. Parts of it have the look, the feel, the grandeur of another time. My first night there, I followed the cobbled streets from the hotel towards the Spree, the river that runs through the city. Reaching the river, I was taken aback by the view--the Bode Museum towered at a fork in the waters, its dark, gilded dome awash in the setting sun. It was magical. And the city kept doing this, kept leaving me breathless when I'd least expected it. I'd turn a corner and stumble into a beautiful shaded courtyard, or I'd lose my way in a neighbourhood and find myself at the gates of an old palace. And just walking through the halls of the Neues Museum, those light-filled, airy halls, was worth the price of admission. But for all that, Berlin never felt old or tired or stuck up. There was too much going on in its streets, in its myriad, hidden courtyards, for it to feel anything like that. People were gathered, wherever I was in Berlin--in lines waiting for kebap, in spirited protest in the streets, at market stalls overflowing with chanterelles, in leafy, light-strung courtyards, drinking the night away. Berlin to me felt young, alive, still in the midst of finding and defining itself.
Museum Insel Overlooking the Spree On the Spree
And the food, I think, reflected this, this complicatedness about Berlin. I ate plenty that was decidedly very German--leberkäse with mustard, a sort of pinkish slab of finely ground pork, onions, and liver, the edges crisp and golden from baking, the best and simplest of potato salads, sharply dressed and slicked with olive oil (Cafe Sgaminegg), a meltingly tender pork knuckle, flaky pastries chock-full of poppy seeds (Brot und Butter), and Wienerschnitzel, of course. But I also ate lots that was decidedly and excitingly less traditional--a pizza with perfectly crisp, blistered crust scattered with edible blossoms (Prinzessinnengarten), a crunchy, hazelnut-crusted potato dumpling suspended over green gazpacho (Lucky Leek), gem-like squares of lokum whose flavour lingered hauntingly in the mouth (Confiserie Orientale), morsels of sesame-coated, sweet-miso fudge savoured between sips of matcha (Oukan). So Berlin's food scene, like the rest of the city, I would say, resisted definition, was a lot of things. 
Of the city's more traditional offerings, vollkornbrot was definitely a favourite of mine. Vollkornbrot is a dark, dense, seed-studded whole-grain rye bread. And, quite frankly, to those of us most familiar with the lofty, open-crumbed loaves of a more French provenance, it can look a little uninviting, a little intimidating, even--like you might break a tooth on your first bite. But let me assure you, vollkornbrot is wonderful stuff. There's an earnestness to its dense, coarse crumb, which, I think, is all the more appropriate to its dark, complex flavour. I braved a slice at one of my first breakfasts in Berlin, and after that, I always made sure to look for one of those tell-tale dark, squat loaves wherever I was.
I knew that I would miss vollkornbrot back at home. I was determined to find a way to make it myself. It didn't take much--as it happened, the last issue of Lucky Peach (my airplane/laundromat reading for the trip) included a recipe. A happy coincidence. I got started as soon as I could.
Levain and soaker Final dough mixed Final dough proofed
Making vollkornbrot doesn't take much, though you do need sourdough starter for the levain. (Making friends with a more intrepid baker than yourself can come in handy for this part.) The night before, you start the levain and soak sunflower and flax seeds in water. Soaking the seeds prevents them from pulling water from the bread and helps to keep the loaf moist. In the morning, you mix the levain and seeds with the remaining ingredients--coarse rye flour, hot water, and salt. Then, you transfer the dough directly to loaf pans to proof. There's no kneading, no shaping involved. After that, the loaves just need a thorough bake.
Sign Letters A Bull Chanterelles at the market
The resulting vollkornbrot is incredible. The long bake leaves the exterior of the loaves dark and toasty and brings out a nutty, almost coffee-like sweetness in the rye. I'm not sure that I've had bread crust more flavourful, more complex. This gives way to a moist, dense, seed-speckled crumb with the distinctive sourness of a long, wild-yeast-driven proof. I like starting my morning with some, thinly sliced and generously buttered, sometimes topped with a spoonful of preserves. But maybe one of these days, when I'm feeling really nostalgic for Berlin, I'll have to have my vollkornbrot like the Germans do and pile my buttered slices with some good cured meat.
Vollkornbrot With some cherry preserves

Rhonda Crosson's Vollkornbrot
Adapted, just a little, from Lucky Peach no. 4
Note: About the flour. I had trouble finding rye flour milled to an appropriate coarseness, so I used a combination of stone-ground medium-grind rye and rye meal. The latter is basically rye berries ground to the consistency of something more like steel-cut oats than flour. (You can find rye meal pretty easily through Amazon, if it isn't available at your local grocery store.) I decided on the ratio by feel. It ended up being about 40 percent rye meal and 60 percent medium-grind flour, which I liked quite a lot. About the loaf pans. I made my loaves in 4" by 8" loaf pans, letting the dough proof for about 4 hours, just until it crested over the lip of the pans. If you own a pain-de-mie loaf pan, this might be the time to use it. I saw a lot of loaves of vollkornbrot in Berlin with those perfectly rectangular sides. There's something aesthetically pleasing about that.
UPDATE, 2013-01-30. About its shelf-life. I haven't yet tested the recipe's claim that this bread will last for months in the fridge, but I have tried storing a loaf, very tightly wrapped, for three or so weeks. It does keep remarkably well in the fridge, though, unsurprisingly, it is a tad drier around the edges, more so than I would like. I've found that this is nothing a quick spell in the toaster and a good slathering of butter (or mashed avocado and salt) won't fix. Even so, I might stick to baking one loaf at a time in the future.

53 g sourdough starter
538 g coarse rye flour (see note above)
457 g water

92 g flax seeds
92 g sunflower seeds
182 g water

350 g coarse rye flour
218 g hot tap water
20 g fine sea salt

Make the levain. In a large bowl, combine the levain ingredients and mix by hand. Cover with plastic wrap and allow to ferment at room temperature overnight, about 8 to 12 hours, until the mixture is gassy and doubled in size. Meanwhile, combine the soaker ingredients and cover with plastic wrap. Allow to soak at room temperature overnight, 8 to 12 hours.
The next day, combine the levain, soaker, and remaining ingredients in the bowl of an electric mixer. Using the paddle attachment on slow speed, mix until very well incorporated and smooth--this could take up to 10 minutes. Slow speed is important to avoid breaking up the delicate pentosans, the gummy sugars responsible for the structure in rye breads. The resulting dough, though cohesive, should be rather wet and batter-like. Rye, unlike wheat, has very little gluten in it.
Portion the dough into two 9-1/2" by 5" loaf pans that have been greased and lightly coated with rye flour. Using wet hands, press down to level out the dough and smooth the surface. Proof in a warm place until the dough almost reaches the top of the pan. This will take anywhere from 2 to 6 hours.
Heat the oven to 450 degrees F. Bake the loaves for 40 minutes, then drop the temperature to 400 degrees F and bake for another 30 to 40 minutes, until the top of the loaf is very brown. A thorough bake is important with a dense rye like vollkornbrot. If it isn't baked all the way through, it will be gummy and sticky.
After baking, let the bread cool completely--as long as a whole day--before slicing. Wrapped very tightly in the fridge, this bread will keep for three or four months.
Makes two 9-1/2" by 5" loaves.