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Archive for the ‘American’ Category

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It’s high peach season, and my Greenmarket is bursting with the fruits. Though I already have several easy recipes for peach desserts that Tom is always happy to eat on summer evenings (and often for the next day’s breakfast too), I enjoy looking for new ones to try. The recipe I found this week was somewhat misleading and didn’t come out at all the way I expected.

It’s called Peach Crumble Cake, and it’s from Lee Bailey’s book Country Desserts. The name was intriguing to me, because a crumble and a cake are normally quite different things. A cake, of course, is baked from a sweetened batter, and even if fruit is added, it comes out firm and sliceable. For a crumble, the fruit goes into a pan and is topped with a crumbly mixture of flour, sugar, and butter. When baked it’s spooned out for serving.

This particular recipe has a base of cake batter, with peach halves set on top. Okay, I thought, that seems like an easy enough kind of cake; I’ll just have to see how the “crumble factor” enters the picture here.

A glitch appeared as I noted the number of peaches the recipe required. For an 8-inch square pan, it wanted 10 large peaches, cut in halves. That was absurd: Even if each peach were only 2 inches wide, that size pan would hold only 16 halves – and most peaches are much larger than that. In any event, I didn’t have an 8-inch square pan, so I’d be using a 9-inch round one (the same capacity, per the πr2 formula). So I bought six peaches, each easily three inches across. I already had all the other ingredients.
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The preparations went smoothly enough. I creamed butter with brown and white sugar; beat in flour, baking powder, and eggs; and transferred the batter to my buttered cake pan.
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I dropped the peaches briefly into boiling water, drained and peeled them, and cut each one in half.
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From the amount of room they took up on my 11-inch prep board, it was clear that not all those halves were going to fit in my pan. And they didn’t. It took only seven halves, plus tucked-in bits of an eighth. I sprinkled them all with lemon juice and a mix of cinnamon and sugar.
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I expected that the cake batter would rise up and cushion the fruit, though I still couldn’t think how anything would become crumbly. However, the pan was already looking pretty full, so as I put it in a 350° oven, I made sure to set a baking sheet on a shelf just below it, in case the rising batter overflowed the pan. Which it did, in a few places.
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Baking time was a little problematic. The recipe said to bake one hour or until golden. My cake was golden after only 45 minutes, but the cakey part still tested very wet inside. At 10 minutes after the hour, when the crust was starting to darken to brown, my testing skewer finally came out clean. I pulled the cake out of the oven and set it on a rack to cool.
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Obviously, this was not the kind of cake that could be turned out of its pan onto a plate for serving. The recipe had no further handling instructions, so I thought I’d treat it like a pie and take slices straight from the pan.

Nooo, not that either. The missing “crumble factor” kicked in, but not in any way I’d expected: My attempted slices crumbled and fell apart at first touch. Also, the whole interior of the dish was extremely juicy – not to say soggy.

Well, all right: Since the cake had become this very moist crumble, I spooned it into bowls and served it with scoops of ice cream, as the recipe suggested. Texture aside, it tasted fine. It’s hard to hurt ripe peaches and sweet dough.
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But if I’d wanted a simple peach crumble, there are easier ways than this to make one. It was the crumble-cake combo that mainly interested me.  And, aside from the misnomer of calling this a cake, I think something was wrong in the recipe’s proportions: Though I used less than half as many peaches called for, the dish was far too wet. The sugar seems to have drawn so much liquid out of the fruit that the batter couldn’t firm up enough. And the crust would have blackened if I’d baked it longer.

So, for my next peach dessert this summer, I’ll go back to one of my tried and true recipes. The same book has a very good one for a peach cobbler that I’ve written about here before. And I have a recipe of my own for a “proper” peach cake, which I’ve also written about here.

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Veal Francese

The Italian dish vitello alla francese came to America with the great wave of immigration from southern Italy that started in the late 1880s. As “Veal Francese,” it became a staple of the rapidly growing New York City Italian restaurant culture, and it’s still found – in varying degrees of quality – on almost every southern-Italian-style restaurant menu in the US.

Tom, who grew up just across the river in Jersey City, remembers it well from those days:

Veal francese was a standard dish – although one of the more expensive ones – of every Italian-American restaurant I ever frequented. Veal in all sorts of preparations was a lot more common than beef, and a restaurant of any ambitions had to offer several. I remember veal francese fondly as one of simplest and most elegant of them: no tomatoes, no peppers, no onions, just a modest sauce and a thin, tender, delicious, golden slice of meat.

Yielding to Tom’s nostalgia, we made veal francese together for a dinner this week, using a pair of large, well-pounded veal scallops from our butcher shop (owned by an Italian-American family).
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I’d done some recipe checking and found that, to start, the veal is typically dipped in egg and coated with flour, but Tom recalls the New Jersey version always using breadcrumbs instead of flour for a lighter casing. We did it that way.
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While the breaded scallops were firming up in the refrigerator, we took advantage of an unexpected trove of morel mushrooms we’d seen that morning at Eataly.
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Where in this country the store had found morels in August is a mystery – they’re spring mushrooms, and I don’t think they’ve ever been successfully cultivated. But even at their outlandish price, we grabbed some. And sautéed them in butter to accompany the veal.
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We then sautéed the veal in butter with a little olive oil – quickly, to retain all its juiciness. Butter may not be authentic to the Jersey City style: Tom’s memory is hazy on that point.
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The cooked veal waited in a warming oven while we deglazed the pan with white wine, stirred in a few big spoonsful of broth, added salt and pepper, and reduced the liquid until it was almost syrupy. There was just enough sauce to moisten the pieces of veal on their serving platter. Veal francese should never be awash in sauce: On that point Tom’s memory is solid.
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The dish was brilliant. And the morels alongside were a match made in heaven. The interplay of flavors from the veal, the sauce, the mushrooms, and even a plain baked potato was intricate and harmonious, the wild earthy notes of the mushrooms counterpointing the meat-sweetness of the veal and its delicate sauce.
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Glorious as it was, this veal francese is obviously a dish of great simplicity. For that very reason, it’s imperative to have ingredients of absolute top quality. Thus, our veal was thinly cut slices, fresh from the butcher; the breadcrumbs were homemade, as was the broth; and the cooking medium was Kerrygold, a fine Irish butter.

It’s regrettable that in some restaurants veal francese has become a tired, boring, last-choice menu item. That’s almost certainly due to cost-cutting practices like mediocre meat and old, stale cooking oil, as well as careless handling – meat cut badly, coating too heavy, cooking time too long, too much too-gloppy sauce. Treatment like that is what has given Italian-American cooking a bad name, which it definitely doesn’t deserve.
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Good to the last bite!

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BTW, should anyone be interested in more information about Italian-American cooking, here’s a link to an article Tom and I wrote some years ago for The Journal of Gastronomy, called “Italian-Americans in New York: a Bicultural Cuisine.”

 

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We celebrated Independence Day this year by having good friends over for an American dinner. This was a bit of a menu challenge, since my palate, my pantry, and my parties mostly tend toward Italian and French. But I dug into my recipe collection and came up with an all-American lineup, while Tom dug into his wine storage for American wines.

We started modestly in the living room with aperitifs of Gruet brut, a champagne-method sparkling wine from New Mexico, with cocktail peanuts, cheese straws, and pickled herring to nibble on. I made the cheese straws with New York State cheddar, and the little tidbits of herring in mustard sauce were from Russ & Daughters on Houston Street, one of Manhattan’s many noted immigrant success stories.
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At table, our first course was a New Orleans favorite, Crabmeat Maison as served in Galatoire’s restaurant. I’ve written here before about making this luscious preparation for Atlantic blue-claw crabmeat. This day it paired beautifully with a 2016 Chenin Blanc from Paumanok Vineyards on Long Island.
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From there we moved to a rolled rib roast of beautifully rare beef, sourced from Ottomanelli’s of Bleecker Street, one more noted Manhattan immigrant success. This delicious centerpiece was accompanied by picnic-style vegetables: first-of-the-summer corn on the cob, new potato salad (I’ve written here about this too), a colorful heirloom tomato salad; and an ever-reliable three-bean salad, with black beans, kidneys, and chickpeas. The corn, potatoes, and tomatoes were from local farmers at my greenmarket. Our wine was a fine 2010 Petite sirah from California’s Ridge Vineyards.
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Even our cheese board held only US cheeses: Leonora, a goat; Harbison, a soft-ripening cow; Grayson, another cow; and one called Simply Sheep. All but the Grayson were new to us, and all were very good. With them we drank another excellent Ridge wine: 2010 Geyserville. (Tom has written about all these wines in his blog.)
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We concluded with small strawberry shortcakes, that quintessentially American summer dessert. Again, I’ve written about this classic recipe from the American Cooking volume of the Time-Life Foods of the World series. They were local strawberries, of course. This particular batch came out quite messy looking, but they tasted perfectly good.
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All that definitely made a Glorious Fourth dinner. For the final aspect of the patriotic theme, our evening’s music program was also all-American. The guests arrived to the tune of John Philip Sousa marches, and when they were all played, we listened to quiet jazz by Teddy Wilson, who, in Tom’s opinion, probably has the lightest touch of any jazz pianist ever.

Expressing patriotism is a tricky business these days, but culinary patriotism can win all available hearts, minds, and stomachs.

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Last week’s success with two simple strawberry desserts went to my head. Guess I should have known not to push my luck too far. But I’d found one more recipe that I wanted to try before the end of strawberry season. Somewhat more elaborate than the first two, this one, called Summer Pudding, is from Lee Bailey’s Country Desserts, a book that has previously given me several good things.

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The dish is essentially a cooked mixture of strawberries and blueberries in a lavishly fruit-soaked bread casing. It was to be prepared a day in advance, chilled, and served with whipped cream. We like all kinds of normal bread puddings at my house, so this seemed like a very interesting hot-weather version. I gathered the ingredients for an experimental half recipe’s worth.
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While the berries, sugar, and grated lemon peel simmered for 10 minutes in a small pot, I assembled the bread casing in a two-cup soufflé dish. The bread was a bakery pullman loaf, with a crumb rather flimsier than that of my usual homemade white bread, so I had to slice it thicker than I’d have liked.
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I strained the cooked berry mixture, saving all the not-quite-syrupy juices and using some to moisten the floor of the bread.
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The berries went into the case and were topped with another round of bread, which I dampened with a little more juice, being careful not to thoroughly soak the side bread pieces yet.
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Then I had to put a weight on the pudding, wrap it tightly in film, and refrigerate it for 24 hours. Happily, a search through my kitchen cabinets turned up just the right size mini-cocotte lid for the weighting.
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Next day, the pudding unmolded readily enough and accepted further doses of the reserved juices to fully color the casing. Standing alone, it didn’t look all that appealing.
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The individual servings, topped with vanilla-flavored whipped cream, were more attractive.
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However, I can’t say we liked the pudding much. The berry flavors were good, but the overall texture was not: It was essentially just a fruit compote on too much soggy bread. Also, the recipe’s prescribed amount of whipped cream was barely enough to offset the acidity of the fruit and juice. I understand this is intended as a minimal-cooking summer recipe, but we’d have been much happier having those berries in a normal bread pudding.

Well, you can’t win ‘em all. Two out of three’s not so bad.

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My recent week in Venice sent me home with a major fruit and vegetable deficit. The many other culinary temptations there diverted me from my normal interest in fresh produce. Happily, the cure is at hand in my Greenmarket, where it seems that summer is finally on the way. I’ve been regaling myself with local strawberries, blueberries, English peas, flat green beans, spring onions, new potatoes, young zucchini, and even heirloom tomatoes (greenhouse-grown).

A good dish for the produce-hungry is a savory vegetable tart. It’s easy to make with any number of ingredient combinations. This week I made one using Greenmarket zucchini, tomatoes, and onions (the onions already roasted from the previous night’s dinner), supplemented with eggplant from my favorite sidewalk vegetable stand.

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For the tart shell I used pâte brisée, which I often keep on hand in the freezer. After rolling it out, I painted the bottom with Dijon mustard – grainy mustard this time, for a change from smooth.
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I sliced and sauteed one of the eggplants and two of the zucchini.
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While they cooled a little, I roughly chopped the onions and sliced and seeded the larger tomato.
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I spread those vegetables in the uncooked pastry shell, sprinkling each layer with salt, pepper, and herbes de Provence.
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The tart baked for 30 minutes in a 375º oven. (As you may notice below, at the last minute I’d decided to sprinkle a little grated parmigiano over it too.)
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You basically can’t go wrong with a tart like this. Use any nonsweet pastry dough. Add another lightly cooked vegetable – peppers are particularly good. Sprinkle on oregano, thyme, or parsley instead of provençal herbs. Beat an egg with a little tomato puree and pour that around the vegetables. Top the tart with a veil of grated Swiss cheese. Just about anything goes.
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Normally, I like wedges of the tart as a lunch dish or a dinner’s first course. This time, what with our Venice-induced vegetable hunger, it was our dinner’s main course. With no trouble at all, we ate the whole thing – and are looking forward to a summer of more.

Oh yes, lest I forget: The grainy mustard was a bit too sweet and forward, so it’s back to regular Dijon next time.

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I really like baking breakfast breads. I make several kinds of rolls, muffins, scones, sweet breads, brioches . . . . I’ve even tried my hand at crumpets and bagels. Fortunately, I have a husband who’s an enthusiastic abettor of my efforts and consumer of the results. (He’s also the barista for the espressos that are our daily breakfast beverage.)

In baking I normally follow recipes closely, but when a fancy for cranberry-orange muffins struck me recently, I found many different ways of making them, in books and online, but none that truly appealed to me. So I took off mostly on my own and, happily, succeeded quite well.
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For the dry ingredients I took the proportions from Joy of Cooking’s basic buttermilk muffin recipe, using 2 cups cake flour, 1 teaspoon baking powder, ½ teaspoon baking soda, 2 tablespoons sugar, and ½ teaspoon salt. That huge orange you see in the picture above gave me ⅓ cup of juice, in which I warmed ½ cup of dried cranberries, to soften them. I grated the orange’s peel and stirred the zest into a cup of buttermilk. Separately, I beat an egg and melted 2 tablespoons of butter.
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All the liquid ingredients went into the dried ones with only perfunctory mixing, to avoid activating the gluten in the flour, which toughens the muffin crumb. I had to add a little more flour because what I had at first was too wet: more like a batter than a dough.
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Then, when the texture looked right, I spooned the dough into a buttered 12-cup muffin pan. (BTW, I’ve found that brushing the cups with melted butter rather than rubbing them with solid butter gives more even coverage and better prevents sticking.)
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After 25 minutes in a 400º oven, the muffins were done. A few minutes’ rest in their cups, and out they came, to finish cooling on a rack.
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And very nice they were. Cranberry and orange are always a good flavor combination, and the balance here seemed about right. Next time I might try going a little heavier on the cranberries and simmering them longer in the orange juice, but that would be just to see if it made the muffins even better. Split while still warm, the first ones eagerly accepted slatherings of butter and made for a very pleasant small breakfast.
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The barista, normally not rapturous about cranberries, thought these muffins delicious.

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Last week I wrote about a nearly star-crossed dinner at which several of the dishes were brutti ma buoni – ugly but good. I saved a description of the evening’s dessert for its own post, to celebrate its supreme ugliness. Here it is: my fig and almond crostata, just as it came from the oven.
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Pitiful! The attempt at this dessert came about because, all through February and March, my local markets were getting beautifully ripe black Mission figs from Mexico. After enjoying several out-of-season antipasti of prosciutto and figs, I began thinking of fig desserts. This made Tom very happy, whose passion for figs I’ve already written about in connection with a Dalmatian fig tart, so I wanted to try something new.

I found an interesting looking recipe online for a partially open-faced fig and almond crostata, so I tried a small version – one just big enough to accommodate the number of figs I had on hand. In making it I used a few shortcuts, including a batch of made pastry dough that I had in the freezer, plus a few guestimates on quantities, and was pleased when the crostata came out very well. Leftovers even kept without losing goodness for several days.

Okay! I thought: This is one to remember. Now I’ll make a full-size version for my upcoming dinner party, following the recipe exactly. That should be a really fine cap to the meal.

On the morning of the party, I washed, dried, and sliced two boxes of ripe figs. For the cream filling I ground blanched almonds with sugar in a food processor; added an egg, softened butter, a little flour, vanilla, and salt; and processed again until smooth.

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The day before, I’d made the pastry, carefully shaped it into a flattened round, and chilled it overnight. Annoyingly, when rolled out to the specified size, it didn’t hold its roundness but split into big uneven flaps between deep indentations. I hoped that might not be a problem, since I would be folding and pleating the pastry over the filling anyway, so I went ahead and spread the almond cream in the center.

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The cream filling lay much thicker than it had in my test version, and the figs had to be piled higher too. Maybe for that first one I’d rolled out too large a piece of pastry for the amount of filling? But it was good that way; maybe this will be even better.

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Still hopeful, I folded, tucked, and rounded the crostata and gave the pastry a coating of egg wash before putting it in the oven.
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Well, you saw up at the top how that came out. The filling dribbled through the weaker areas of the crust and made a big mess on the baking pan. (I’d wondered at the beginning why the recipe said to roll, shape, transfer, and bake the crostata on parchment paper. Now I knew.)

There was nothing I could do but chop away the burnt almond cream and try to close over the holes in the crust – which hadn’t browned and firmed as nicely as the earlier version did. This crostata was definitely one of the brutti.
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So ugly was it that I never let the guests see the whole dish. In the kitchen I cut individual portions as neatly as I could and brought them to the table. And they were very good!

Though the crust was softer than I’d have liked, the flavors of fig and almond were in excellent balance, and the quantity of filling seemed just right. The full amount of almond cream would, for me, have unpleasantly dominated the dish. Losing so much of it was a brutti ma buoni blessing in disguise. The passionate fig fancier agreed.

 

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