Sunday, January 20, 2013

Above all, flakiness

Poppy seed danishes
When Octavian and I were in Berlin last summer, we were more or less on two different trips. He was there for a workshop and so was limited most days to a view of the city from a hotel conference room. I, however, was only tagging along and so had the luxury of spending my days wandering the winding streets, drinking in everything. There was a lot to the trip, then, that Octavian only ever saw in photos, heard about. And, unsurprisingly, there were spaces, moments, flavours, that were pretty well impossible to capture or convey, that he would've had to have just been there for.
One of those things was a pastry I had at Brot und Butter, a buttery, delicate swirl of a pastry filled with poppy seeds. I ordered it pretty much at random. It was one of my first days in Berlin, and I had been walking all afternoon, paper map in hand, and had already had a few awkward I'm-sorry-my-German-is-awful-sprechen-Sie-Englisch? moments that day. So by the time I'd found my way to the cafe, I was tired and couldn't quite find the courage to speak up and order something. (I also couldn't figure out whether I was supposed to order from the counter or just take a seat.) So instead I just stood there, looking at the pastries in the cases, then at the rows of canned and boxed goods, indecisive about what to do and on the verge of just fleeing the situation. Apparently, I looked pathetic and stricken enough that about ten minutes in one of the women behind the counter asked me if I needed help. So I fumbled my way through another conversation, pointed at one of the poppy seed pastries, and was relieved just to be able to sit down with something, anything, and not feel so much like the silly North American that I was. It helped that the pastry was good, very good. For a few moments, anyway, I forgot the awkward exchange, lost between flakey, poppy-filled bites.
Butter slab Ground poppy seeds Danish dough
I knew as I ate that this pastry wasn't one that I'd be content just to remember. I needed to be able to make more just like it at home, long after this trip was over. But given all the awkwardness that had just transpired, I wasn't about to start asking questions about pastry methods and ingredients. So I settled for scribbling down its name from the pastry case--Mohnschnecken--and retreated.
This brings us to this past week, when I finally accepted that I would have to pull together a laminated yeasted dough if I wanted more Mohnschnecken.* Now, just what a Schnecke is seems to depend on who you ask. Some recipes have you add sour cream to the dough, some have you make letter-folds with it for flakier layers, some have you laminate in the butter for even flakier layers still. Most agree that the dough should be rolled up with its filling and cut into spirals--hence the name Schnecke, which just means snail in German. But because I remembered flakiness above all, I decided I would have to make a laminated dough--beat cold butter into a pliable slab, tuck it into a yeasted dough, and letter-fold it for layer upon layer of flakey pastry. But honestly, the prospect of working with a laminated dough again scared me. I'd only done it once before, and as I knew, it could get messy. You need to work quickly, so that the dough and butter don't get too soft to work with. But you also need to be gentle. If there isn't enough flour on the counter and the dough sticks and tears, the butter will start seeping out, and you might not get those perfect flakey layers. (I don't want to overstate the difficulty of working with laminated dough, but it's definitely something that I'm still working to get better at.) So it took me a few days to work up the courage. Then I dove in.
And it wasn't all that bad. I had a bit of trouble towards the beginning getting the butter the right consistency, and there were a few minor tears in the dough, which I tried my best to pinch together and then forget, but that was it. By early the next afternoon, we were tucking into our first pastries, puffed, golden, still warm from the oven, and ever so flakey. Totally, totally, worth the trouble, awkwardness and all.
Oh, and for those of you unfamiliar with poppy seed fillings--well, I just think we ought to see more of them around here. Poppy seeds have a pleasant bittersweet quality to them, which I think lends itself particularly well to pastry. I saw poppy-seed-filled pastries everywhere in Berlin and poppy seed ice cream too. The Berlinners have the right idea.
Poppy seed filling Danishes proofed and egg-washed Danishes
Much of my success with the Schnecken, I think, owe to the step-by-step photos that Joe, the man behind the pastry recipe, took the trouble to take. You can find his instructions for pulling together the pastry dough here, his instructions for laminating (especially helpful!) here, and his instructions for shaping here. I am actually looking forward to my next encounter with a laminated dough. These particular Schnecken, by the way, are a marriage of two recipes. The poppy seed filling comes from a New York Times recipe for hamantaschen via Smitten Kitchen.

Poppy Seed Snails (Mohnschnecken)
Note: About freezing. I have to say that in my experience, pastries that have been frozen and then thawed, proofed, and baked are never quite as good as ones baked fresh. They just never have quite the same airy crumb. But these Schnecken held up pretty well. I'm probably just being overly picky in saying that they're not quite, quite as good. About the raisins. The next time I make this poppy seed filling, I might consider giving the raisins a rough chop before adding them in. This filling is about the poppy seeds after all!

1 batch pastry dough, chilled for at least an hour (recipe here)
1 batch poppy seed filling, chilled completely (recipe here)
2 egg yolks lightly beaten with a splash of milk or cream

Roll out the pastry dough into a rectangle (the exact dimensions don't really matter--I'd aim for it to be at least twice as wide as it is long) just shy of a quarter-inch thick, dusting the work surface, the dough, and the rolling pin with flour as necessary. Gently spread the poppy seed filling in a thin, even layer over the dough, leaving a half-inch border at the sides and bottom of the rectangle. (You might not need all the filling.) Starting from the top of the rectangle, roll the dough up into a cylinder about 1-1/2 to 2 inches in diameter. Trim the ends and then cut the dough into 1-1/4 inch pieces with a bench scraper or a sharp knife.
Place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, six to a sheet, and cover to proof until soft and airy, about 2 hours. (At this stage--before the final proof--you can also put them in the fridge overnight and then proof them the next day or store them in the freezer for up to three months. Just be sure to thaw frozen pastries overnight in the fridge before proofing and baking. From the fridge, the pastries may need an extra hour to proof.) Then brush with the egg wash and bake in an oven heated to 375 degrees F until golden, about 15 minutes.
Makes about 12 pastries.

*It occurs to me now that the Mohnschnecke I had in Berlin might not have been made with a laminated dough. Looking back at my notes from the trip, my guess is that that pastry was made with a sour cream dough, which made it crisper and less croissant-like. But hey, I'm not going to complain.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

It's not always about looks

Smoked pork hock
A smoked ham hock is one of those items off a hog that will never win any beauty contests. It comes to you still wearing its skin, now dark and leathery from the smoker. Sometimes, a few wiry hairs still jut out from the skin, a reminder of its provenance. A thick bone protrudes from its centre, making it obvious that there isn't much to it but bone. I was more than a little intimidated the first time I freed one of these from its butchers' paper. I just wasn't sure that I wanted it in my pot, especially with that hair. Did this thing really belong in a cooking pot? (The one pictured above is a much nicer-looking specimen than my first hock. Hair-free too.)
Ham hock and onions Collards and black-eyed peas Collards and the hock
But I quickly came to appreciate a smoked hock for what it was. It isn't always about looks, you know. See, a smoked ham hock is an ingenious thing. The hock is the cut from a hog's hind leg between the foot and the ham proper. Unlike the ham, there isn't much meat to the hock. It's mostly bone, skin, and tough connective tissue. And what meat there is is pretty lean. For these reasons, it's not a much sought-after cut. It takes a little work to get to a hock's goodness--a long, low, simmer. So the smoking is one way to make it worthwhile. As a smoked hock breaks down in its cooking liquid, it gives off a lot of flavour--smoky, porky, woodsy flavour. Like I said, ingenious.
Now, maybe early January isn't the best time to be extolling the virtues of pig parts. But one of things I like most about a smoked pork hock is that a little goes a long way. Drop just one meaty hock (remember, it's mostly bone) into a pot with some onion and water and set it to simmer, and you're on your way to something special. That's the idea, anyway, behind Kemp Minifie's hoppin' John collard stew. You let your hock simmer away the afternoon, returning just to add some black-eyed peas to the pot after an hour and some collard greens an hour after that. It's my favourite kind of winter cooking. You can leave things to bubble merrily on their own and wander off to daydream, read, or do a load of laundry. And when the day's light has faded, you just return to fish out the hock, separate the meat from skin, fat, and bone, return the meat to the pot, and then ladle some of that stew over a plate of rice.
Smoked hock meat Hoppin' John collard stew
Pork and beans and greens might not exactly be your idea of how to start off the new year. But the smoked ham hock and the culinary tradition behind it--the resourcefulness of it, the ingeniousness of it--really appeal to me right now. These are ideas I can get behind, ideas I want to carry with me the  whole year through. And, if nothing else, who doesn't like a pile of silky collards, smoky meat, and creamy beans floating in porky broth on a cold winter's night? Just don't forget to bring your favourite hot sauce to the table too. Happy new year, everyone. 

Hoppin' John Collard Stew
From Kemp Minifie via Gourmet

1 medium onion, chopped
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/4 tsp hot red-pepper flakes
1 meaty smoked ham hock, about 1 lb in weight
10 cups water
1/2 lb / 1 1/4 cups dried black-eyed peas, picked over and rinsed (don’t soak)
1 lb collard greens, center ribs discarded and leaves chopped
Hot sauce to serve

Cook onion in oil with 1/2 tsp salt in a deep heavy medium pot over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned, about 8 minutes. Add red-pepper flakes and cook, stirring, 1 minute. Add ham hock and water and simmer, partially covered, 1 hour. 
Add black-eyed peas and simmer, partially covered, 1 hour. 
Stir in collards (add water if necessary for a soupy consistency) and simmer, partially covered, stirring occasionally, until greens are very tender, 45 minutes to 1 hour. 
Remove ham hock and chop meat, discarding skin, fat, and bone. Stir into stew and thin with water, if necessary, then season with salt.
Serve over rice and with hot sauce at the table. The acidity of the hot sauce helps to cut through the rich smokiness of the stew.

Serves six.