Tuesday, February 26, 2013

That pâte à choux magic

Honey-glazed crullers
There are the things that you outgrow, and then there are the things you know you never will. The former, for me, include wild hair colours, teenage crushes, the (over)use of twenty-dollar words, and cookies-and-cream anything; the latter, wooly scarves, long road trips made in the right company, French philosophy, and honey crullers.
The cruller has always been my favourite doughnut. I love its delicate egginess, its impossible airiness, the crackly glaze that clings to its winding, golden ridges. It, for me, is doughnut perfection. So, naturally, I was excited to see that it was among the doughnuts featured in this month's Saveur (for those of you haven't seen it yet, it is a veritable doughnut extravaganza). Before this, it hadn't occurred to me to even try making crullers at home. How, after all, would you be able to reproduce those distinctive ridges, that airy structure, in your own kitchen? Saveur had answers. A star piping tip! Pâte à choux! Actually, now that I think about it, it seems kind of obvious. Pâte à choux is the egg-rich pastry dough out of which éclairs, gougères, and gnocchi parisienne are made. You start, typically, with water, butter, sugar, and salt over the stove and add to that flour and then eggs to pull together a pretty soft, unassuming dough. But when that dough hits heat it puffs, airy, golden, ethereal. So, really, it should have come as no surprise that crullers are made out of pâte à choux. They have that same magical quality about them.
Parchment squares Piped rings Unglazed
So I was all set to make my first crullers until I looked at the ingredients list. Vodka? Instant potato flakes? Now, I'm not one to baulk at an unusual pâte à choux, but I at least want an explanation. The head notes, however, said nothing, and I just wasn't feeling that adventurous. But I still wanted crullers, so I took this as an excuse to get a book I've wanted for some time, Lara Ferroni's Doughnuts.
Leafing through the book, I almost got sidetracked. There are so many doughnuts in it that I'd like to make. Apple-cider doughnuts made with graham flour, picarones, which are Peruvian winter-squash fritters, crème brûlée doughnuts--they all sounded fantastically good. But in the end, the thought of those swirled ridges, that pâte à choux magic, it got to me.
Deep-frying, admittedly, can be intimidating. That oil, after all, gets very, very hot. But common sense, a deep, heavy-bottomed pot, a deep-fry thermometer, and a spider skimmer are all you really need to keep things safe. And besides, making doughnuts is fun, especially with a friend in the kitchen to help out. For these crullers, one of you can pipe rings of pâte à choux onto squares of greased parchment, while the other takes care of the frying. It's pretty straightforward. Really, there isn't much at all  standing between you and a dozen fine and lofty crullers.
Half-dozen Glazed, overhead Cruller interior
And now that I've made these crullers, I'm really curious about the recipe printed in Saveur. Has anyone tried it out? Can anyone tell me what the vodka and potato flakes do?

Honey Crullers
Adapted, ever so slightly, from Lara Ferroni's Doughnuts
Note: About the piping tip. I used an Ateco no. 846, which is actually a closed-star piping tip. The equivalent open-star tip is the Ateco no. 826, but I couldn't find one of these in time. The only difference between the two, as far as I can tell, is that the closed-star tip produces more pronounced ridges in the pastry, which isn't a bad thing at all in this case. About the frying oil. I used canola oil, but I'm not sure that I would again. Though canola is a fine frying oil for some things, it isn't all that neutral, and with these doughnuts at least, its flavour was more noticeable than I'd have liked it to be. Ferroni recommends safflower oil, and I second that. About the parchment squares. If you end up with enough pâte à choux to make more than 12 crullers like I did, you might find yourself short on parchment squares. I reused a few. They were a little crinkly from the hot oil, but that didn't really pose much of a problem for piping.

1 cup water
85 g / 6 tablespoons butter
2 teaspoons sugar
generous 1/4 teaspoon salt
135 g / 1 cup all-purpose flour, sifted
3 large eggs, at room temperature
1-2 large egg whites, at room temperature and slightly beaten
Vegetable oil for frying
Honey glaze (see below)

Place the water, butter, sugar, and salt in a small heavy-bottomed saucepan and bring to a brisk boil over medium-high heat. Add the flour and stir with a wooden spoon until the flour is completely incorporated. Continue to cook and stir for 3 to 4 minutes to steam away as much water as possible. The more moisture you can remove, the more eggs you can add later and the lighter your pastry will be. The mixture is ready when a thin film coats the bottom of the pan.
Move the mixture to the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Although you can mix the pâte à choux by hand, this can be rather arduous, so use a mixer if you have one. Stir the mixture for about 1 minute to allow it to cool. Then mix on medium speed and add the first egg. Let it mix in completely and then scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add the remaining eggs, one at a time, and mix in completely. Add the egg whites, a little at a time, until the paste becomes smooth and glossy and will hold a slight peak when pinched with your fingers. Be careful not to add too much egg white or your crullers will become heavy. Transfer the batter to a pastry bag fitted with a 1/2-inch star piping tip.
To fry the crullers, heat at least 2 inches of oil in a heavy-bottomed pot until a deep-fry thermometer registers 370 degrees F. While the oil is heating, cut out twelve 3-inch-by-3-inch squares of parchment paper and lightly grease them. Pipe a generous ring onto each square. When the oil is hot, gently place one cruller at a time in the oil, paper side up. Remove the paper with tongs. Fry on each side until golden brown, 2-3 minutes. (Undercooked crullers will collapse while cooling, so observe the first one, and if this happens, increase your frying time and check the oil temperature for the rest.) Remove with a spider skimmer or slotted spoon and drain on paper towel for at least 1 minute. Leave on a rack to cool. Once cool to the touch, the crullers can be glazed.
Alternatively, you can bake the crullers. They will have slightly firmer crusts than fried ones. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and pipe the crullers onto it, at least 2 inches apart from one another. Bake for 5 minutes, then reduce the heat to 350 degrees F and bake for another 15 minutes. Turn off the heat, open the oven door slightly and let the crullers sit in the cooling oven for 5 to 10 minutes. Remove, dip in glaze, and cool on a rack until the glaze has set.
Makes 10-15 doughnuts.

Tips for using a pastry bag. To fill the bag, first fit the bag with the tip and then tuck some of the bag into the wide end of the tip. This will prevent whatever you're filling the bag with from running out the tip as you fill. Second, roll down the sides of the bag a bit so that when you transfer your filling to the bag, it doesn't end up all near the wide opening where your hands will be. You'll just make a mess trying to squeeze its contents towards the tip. If you're working alone, stand the empty bag up in a tall glass to keep it steady as you fill. Regardless, a tall glass can be helpful if you need to put the bag down at any point in the middle of piping. Finally, with the bag filled, twist the wide end of the bag shut and hold it there with one hand (use your other hand to support and guide the bag by holding the bag closer to the tip). With the bag twisted and held this way, you should be able to easily force the filling through the tip.

Honey Glaze
From Lara Ferroni's Doughnuts

150 g / 1 1/2 cups confectioners' sugar, sifted
1 tablespoon honey
3 to 4 tablespoons milk water

Place the sugar in a medium bowl and slowly stir in the honey and milk, a little at a time, to make a smooth, pourable glaze.

Monday, February 18, 2013

You have to engage

Smoked ham hock rillettes 
"We're sensorily deprived right now in modern life. Our eyes are engaged--sometimes our ears--but our bodies? Not so much. These aren't just bags of bones we're carrying around." -- Michael Pollan in Lucky Peach no. 6.
Smoked ham hock rillettes. This one might be a hard sell, not because making a few jars is particularly difficult but because--there's no point in trying to hide it--it's messy and time-consuming, a real process as far as a recipe goes. You cannot but get your hands (and your kitchen) dirty. But that's also what I enjoy about making them.
You might roll your eyes. Grad student. Too much time on her hands. But that's not what this comes down to. On weeknights, I'm all for ease and convenience, for meals that practically cook themselves and hardly leave a trace. But those aren't the meals that draw me to the kitchen. They're not the reason I cook. I cook to engage myself, to use my hands, to make messes and learn a thing or two in the midst of making them. These aren't, of course, the most basic reasons for being in the kitchen, but they are the ones that make cooking a pleasure, whatever night of the week it may be. And it's good, I think, to remind ourselves of this once in a while and cook something demanding, something that draws us in. And these rillettes, they do that.
Smoked ham hocks Ham hocks near the end of cooking Ham hocks broken down
Rillettes traditionally are a coarse-textured, rich spread made from a fatty cut of pork, duck, or goose. The meat is gently braised, finely shredded, and then mixed with fresh herbs, spices, and the flavourful liquid in which it was braised. Pretty straightforward. The result is something like pâté but less fussy. These particular rillettes, however,  come from the good people at Mission Street Food and so, unsurprisingly, part with tradition. 
The hock is pretty lean as far as cuts of pork go. In fact, it's mostly skin, bone, and connective tissue. So that's where things start to get messy with these rillettes. Once the hocks have been cooked, you need to get at what little meat there is. And there's no getting around this, you need to use your hands. Bits of  meat are often tangled up with connective tissue and hard to spot, so what you need to do is break down the hocks by hand and feel your way through them, pulling soft tissue from bone, picking out the meat as you go.
But why use smoked hocks in the first place, why go through all that trouble for so little? Because what smoked hocks lack in flesh and fat they make up for in flavour and collagen. Remember all of that skin, that sticky connective tissue? Even after four hours of simmering, these are still steeped through with woodsy, smoky flavour. And just as important, they're rich in collagen. Collagen is all about texture. It's basically what gelatin is made out of. It's the stuff that gives homemade stocks their satiny, rich mouth-feel. So, naturally, that skin and connective tissue don't go to waste here. You whirl them in the blender with a splash of stock from cooking the hocks and push that through a sieve. And there you have it, smoky gelatin purée.
Skin and connective tissue Components collected Rillettes on sourdough
Now, this, I think, is where things get demanding. It isn't that anything gets difficult. It's just that your attention, your judgement is called for. You have to engage. Let me explain. At this point, you'll have all of your components lined up. From the hocks, you'll have meat, pork stock, and gelatin purée. You should also have some rendered pork fat (yes, lard) on hand to supplement what you have, since ham hocks are so lean. Then there are the seasonings. Quatre épices, a blend of white pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon, and clove, is traditional. Crushed garlic, dijon mustard, sherry vinegar, and fresh thyme leaves aren't out of place either. Salt, needless to say, is important. (As printed, the MSF recipe is loosey-goosey. Very helpfully, it calls for 'spices'.) The meat goes into the bowl of your stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. What happens next is more or less up to you. Each of the components will contribute a particular flavour and/or texture to the finished rillettes. How you prioritize them is a matter of preference. What this means is that you have to taste and tweak as you go. You have to ask yourself: does this need more fat? Is it getting too dry--should I add some stock? Could it use more acidity, more vinegar, maybe? Like I said, you have to engage. And little by little, you'll get to something that pleases you, that makes you beam.
So what I like about making these rillettes is that it's very physical, very involving. It's all about you feel and what you taste. This is no dump-and-stir exercise. There's no crossing your fingers, hoping that things have turned out. How things go is on you. It's a little scary, for sure. But it's also utterly liberating. I don't cook like this very often. I lean a lot on good cookbooks, regimented quantities. And on most days, that's all I feel I have the time for. But once in a while, I think, this is just the sort of thing you need to do.

Smoked Ham Hock Rillettes
Adapted from the Mission Street Food Cookbook
Note: About the seasoning. I stuck with fairly traditional seasonings, but you shouldn't feel limited to these. Look at other rillettes recipes for guidance. It'll be hard to go wrong. For example, I flat-out forgot to add mustard. My feeling is that juniper might be a nice addition. About the pork fat. There's no need to spring for anything as fancy as leaf lard for these rillettes. Save the good stuff for pies. But do take the trouble to find yourself some good, unprocessed fat. Try your favourite butcher. About the quantity of hocks. I got away with using just over 3 lbs of hocks but only because one of them was extra meaty. It would probably be wiser to use closer to 4 or 5 lbs. Shelf life. Sterilizing your jars will help the rillettes keep for longer in the fridge. Both Nigel Slater and Jane Grigson advise pouring a layer (half an inch or so) of melted pork fat over the rillettes if you're not planning on eating them within a few days.

3-5 lbs meaty smoked ham hocks (see above)
2.5-3 quarts chicken stock, pork stock, dashi, or water
1-2 cups rendered bacon or pork fat, plus more to cover (see above)
2 tablespoons or so sherry vinegar
1 tablespoon thyme leaves
1 1/2 tablespoons or so quatre épices
1 large clove garlic, crushed

Gently simmer the ham hocks in the chicken stock, pork stock, dash, or water.
After about 4 hours, the meat should be very tender. Cool the entire pot until you can handle the hocks. Drain and reserve the stock. (At the end you'll have plenty of stock left for cooking greens, or just for sipping.)
Pick the ham hocks apart by hand. Separate the meat from the skins and soft collagen. Reserve both. (The edges of the ham hocks can become dried out and tough from the smoking process or from not being fully submerged in liquid. Move the hocks around periodically as they simmer, and discard any parts that may be too tough to rillette. Discard any tough skin, bones, and weird gristle.)
Blend the skins and collagen with just enough stock to get the mix going (probably about 1/4-1/2 cup), creating a gelatin purée. Strain the purée through a fine sieve, using a lade or spoon to push it through.
Combine the meat and some of the purée, fat, vinegar, and spices in a stand mixer. (The ratios of fat-to-meat-to-gelatin will vary, depending on how you prioritize richness (fat), unctuousness (gelatin), and moisture (stock). Taste as you mix; add the salt, vinegar, mustard, and your spices, herbs, or garlic until you reach the desired balance.) Mix using the medium-low setting and the paddle attachment of your mixer. For best results, mix the rillettes at the temperature it will be served.
Store in glass or ceramic jars and chill in the fridge until ready to serve. Serve with good bread, pickles, a sharp salad, or even some tart fruit preserves. Consider stuffing any that remains in baked potatoes, as Nigel Slater suggests.
(In addition to the ham-hock stock, there'll be lots of leftover gelatin purée, which you can use to enrich anything from meatballs to gravy. If you're not quite ready to jump into another meat-centric project, it's okay to freeze the purée for later use.)
Serves 12-16 as an appetizer. (Fills about four 200 g jars.)

Monday, February 4, 2013

This is it

Parsley and barley salad
If in the past year or so there was a cookbook that I reached for most, one whose pages caught the spatter of sauce and oil and cream more than any other, it was definitely Nigel Slater's Tender. I cooked from it a lot, and we ate really well, all year long. But this year, it's my feeling that things will be a little different. This, I think, might just be the year of Jerusalem. And, as I'm sure you've already heard, this cookbook is one that dazzles, one that overflows with colour and stories and bold, brilliant flavours. So I won't say much more about it. I'll just say this--I cooked from it all weekend, and, friends, this is a cookbook rich in small splendours. It is one hard to pull away from. I can't wait to cook from it again.
Parsley to be chopped The rest Salad again
The dish from this past weekend that I want to share with you is one, I think, that between dishes like roasted chicken with clementines and arak and burnt eggplant with garlic, lemon, and pomegranate seeds is easy to overlook. Parsley and barley salad. It sounds about as uninteresting as can be. But it isn't. This salad is bright, bold, and vibrant. The parsley, with its peppery, anise notes, definitely leads, but then there's the creamy za'atar-marinated feta, the crunchy bits of sweet green pepper, the delicate barley, the crushed, roasted cashews, the sharp scallion. I don't know about you, but come February, I'm starved for clean, bright, simple foods. I need something to counter the inevitable heaviness of winter, the rich stews, the parade of roasted root vegetables. I need something that will wake me up. This salad is it. Confetti for the parade. Let it fall on your plate, and you'll see.
I've made this salad a couple of times now and have eaten it just on its own as a late dinner and alongside a number of other things. I think it went particularly well with roasted, cumin-spiced cauliflower. But it's pretty versatile. Think of it as a sort-of wintery tabbouleh, (for those months when tomatoes are just unthinkable).

Parsley and Barley Salad
Adapted from Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi's Jerusalem
Note: About the barley. This salad is all about the parsley. Even so, I do like to add a little more barley than is called for, but do what you will. About the za'atar. Za'atar is a blend of dried thyme, sumac, and roasted sesame seeds. The blend I bought also has oregano and hyssop in it, which I'm not sure I'm all that crazy about, but it's easy enough to make your own at home. About the feta. It's really important to get a good, creamy feta for this salad. It serves as a counterpoint to the sharpness of the salad's other ingredients. None of this insipid, watery stuff.

40-55 g / scant 1/4 - 1/3 cup pearl barley (see above)
150 g / 5 oz good, creamy feta cheese
5 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon za'atar
1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds, lightly toasted and crushed
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
80 g / scant 3 oz flat-leaf parsley (2-3 bunches), leaves and fine stems
4 green onions, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, crushed
40 g / 1/3 cup cashews, lightly toasted and coarsely crushed
1 green pepper, seeded and cut into 3/8-inch dice
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
Salt and pepper to taste

Place the pearl barley in a small saucepan, cover with plenty of water, and boil for 30-35 minutes, until tender but with a bite. Pour into a fine sieve, shake to remove all the water, and transfer to a large bowl.
Break the feta into rough pieces, about 3/4 inch / 2 cm in size, and mix in a small bowl with 1 1/2 tablespoons of the olive oil, the za'atar, the coriander seeds, and the cumin. Gently mic together and leave to marinate while you prepare the rest of the salad.
Chop the parsley finely and place in the bowl with the green onions, garlic, cashew nuts, pepper, allspice, lemon juice, the remaining olive oil, and the cooked barley. Mix together well and season to taste. To serve, divide the salad among four plates and top with the marinated feta.
Serves 4.