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Caramelized Torrijas

All of three years ago, on my return from a trip to Spain, a post that I wrote here about many of the foods I enjoyed there mentioned a dessert called a torrija. Entirely new to me, it seemed to be a sort of structured-chunk-of-bread pudding with a crunchy crème brûlée topping – quite delicious. Here’s the picture I took of it:

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Eager to try making it at home, I began looking for recipes. There were two in my Spanish cookbooks, and I found others on the internet, but they were all essentially French toast: bread slices dipped in a thin custard, some also in beaten egg, and fried to thorough brownness in oil or butter. It was clear from my photo that the one I had in Spain hadn’t been done that way.

The soft white sides of that torrija made me think it couldn’t have been fried at all, so when I attempted to recreate the dish I baked it and ran it under the broiler with a brown sugar topping. Never mind the details; it didn’t work. I never got around to trying again.

But I couldn’t get that torrija out of my mind. Recently I had an idea about it: I searched for the name on Google Images. Among the hundreds of photos that came up, a few looked something like the one I had in Spain. Pursuing those to their sources, I learned that there are two kinds of torrijas. “Mine” was the kind called caramelezada, and it’s cooked in a way different from the French-toast type. Eureka!

But not so fast: the underlying recipes were all in Spanish. The little of that language that I know wasn’t enough to fully grasp the techniques, and Google’s translations were ludicrous. So I had to improvise somewhat. Here, by the way, is the recipe I relied on, to the extent that I could, for my experiment.

Making just a fraction of the recipe’s quantities, I stirred together milk, heavy cream, beaten egg and sugar. I put two thick slabs of my own white bread into this uncooked batter and left them to absorb it, which turned out not to be as simple as it sounds.

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The recipe said they’d need 45 minutes on each side. That seemed like a lot, but fortunately I’d started early enough in the day, because it did take that long, even with occasional pour-overs to expedite the process.

Then came the actual cooking. This was where the Spanish instructions weren’t clear to me. Here’s exactly how Google translated the final words of the recipe:

We go with the marking of the French toast. We light the pan with butter. We pour plenty of sugar on the top and put them in the pan for a while until the sugar is roasted (but be careful not to burn). We do the same for the other side and put them on the plates.

Was I supposed to put the sugar on top of the butter, which was just referred to, or on “them,” the breads? How much sugar is “plenty”? It would also have helped to know how high a heat to use and how long it might take for the sugar to “roast.” ¿Quién sabe?

First I tried putting the sugar in the pan and laying the bread slice on top of the sugar.

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The butter bubbled along merrily, but when I tilted up the bread to see how it was browning, I couldn’t see any effect from the sugar. So just before turning the bread, I put some sugar on top of it.
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The butter was getting pretty dark, and I worried that it, not the sugar, might burn. When the first chunk of bread was well browned, I took it out of the pan. No sugar had caramelized on it, but it was clearly cooked enough. For the second chunk, I added more fresh butter and put sugar both in the pan and on each side of the bread.
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I got basically the same result: The sugar just dissolved, and the bread simply browned in the sweetened butter. I gave up and called them done.
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They weren’t a disaster. Their texture and flavor were very like the torrija I had in Spain. But I’m really sorry I couldn’t get the crunchy topping. Not just for the pleasant mouthfeel: Caramelizing sugar cuts some of its sweetness, and the amounts of sugar each torrija absorbed in my futile attempts to caramelize it gave it a far more intense sweetness than I’d have liked.
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A little blowtorch would probably have done the job, but I don’t own one. Beloved Spouse is voting for a few minutes under the broiler, but that didn’t work when I made my first torrija try. If anyone who reads this post has had success with torrijas caramelezadas, I’d be grateful for any tips you’d care to provide. In English, please: My Spanish is clearly inadequate for this dish.

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Octopus, which used to be a culinary curiosity in this country, is increasingly coming into the mainstream of locally available seafood. Three different fish stores within half a mile of my home now carry it regularly, both raw and cooked. I’ve had very good results from a few Spanish and Italian octopus recipes and am always interested in new ones. The two latest ones I’ve made are from Tapas: The Little Dishes of Spain, by Penelope Casas.

My copy is an attractive large paperback, with more than 300 recipes. Those I’d tried had all been successful, so when I came across two for octopus tapas that I hadn’t much noticed before, I read them with interest. Both have you start by simply boiling the octopus, so for the sake of convenience I bought a pound of cooked tentacles – enough for half recipes of each tapa.
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The first dish I made was Pulpo con Patatas, Octopus with Red Peppers and Potatoes. The full recipe is said to serve four, but I could see that even the half would be plenty for a main dish for the two of us. Along with the cut-up octopus, it calls for chopped onion, cubed potatoes, Spanish smoked paprika, skinned and chopped sweet red pepper, minced garlic, and bay leaf.
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Once Beloved Spouse had done all the knife work for me, the rest of the preparation was easy enough. Boil the potatoes until tender, drain them, and save some of the cooking water. In an ovenproof dish sauté the onion, pepper, and garlic in olive oil. Add the octopus and sauté for a minute or two. Stir in the paprika, bay leaf, potatoes, salt, and a little of the potato water.
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Bring the liquid to a boil and bake the dish, uncovered, in a moderate oven for 15 minutes. It came out of the oven looking much as it did going in, but the flavors had blended a bit and intensified each other, making a rich, filling combination.
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This was a good, satisfying dish, but I don’t see it as becoming a regular in my repertoire: Though billed as a tapa, it would have been very heavy as an appetizer; and as a main course it wasn’t quite as satisfying as a few other octopus dishes I’ve made – here and here.  For us, those are the upper echelon of octopus cookery.

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A few days later, I made the second tapa recipe, Pulpo a la Leonesa, Octopus Stewed in Onions. With my pre-cooked octopus, it was the essence of simplicity: aside from the eponymous octopus and onions, the only ingredients are olive oil, vinegar, wine, and salt.

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I softened the onions in the oil, covered the pan and cooked them gently until tender. I added one-inch pieces of octopus, salt, and tiny amounts of white wine and my own red wine vinegar; cooked it all gently, covered, for 15 minutes; and served with slices of crusty bread.
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This dish wasn’t quite as successful as the previous one. Mostly my fault, I think: The recipe strongly recommended using tiny octopi, which would have benefited more from the condiments than my larger chunks did. Also, there was a little too much sameness to each dense, rich mouthful. It would have shown better in an assortment of several tapas, with varying textures and flavors to contrast, than it did as our only appetizer. The onions were extremely tasty, though – we’d have liked more of them.

The next time I get an urge for octopus, I might buy the tiny ones, cook them myself, and try this dish again to see what difference they make. And I’ll probably increase the quantity of onions.

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Last week I went a little crazy at Miloski’s, the Long Island poultry farm we love. We’d driven out east 75 miles just to buy chickens. The trip itself was not unusual; we make it a few times a year, because they’re the best chickens we’ve ever had, even compared to all the free-range kinds available in Manhattan. We often make a day of it, pushing further out on the North Fork and adding farmstand and/or winery visits, even a little birdwatching. But this time we went just for chickens – straight out and straight back.

What we came back with is 18 pounds of poultry: 2 whole chickens, 10 very large chicken legs, and 4 duck legs. Even for me that’s excessive, Casasbut somehow they all called out to me. So now our freezer is full of fowl, and I’ve started happily working my way through it. Most recently I took out two of the big chicken legs and made Pollo al Vino Tinto, from Penelope Casas’s The Foods and Wines of Spain. I’ve made the recipe before and like it very much. Even Beloved Spouse – the irredeemable non-chicken-fancier – likes it, which helps ensure domestic tranquility.

I floured and browned my chicken pieces, then stirred in a mince of carrot, onion, garlic, and chorizo. Imported Spanish chorizo, I feel, is crucial to this dish.

chicken-1

When the vegetables had softened, I added a good dash of brandy and flamed it. (I tried to get a nice dramatic shot of the flames shooting up, but by the time the camera was ready I was in time to catch only the last spluttering.)

chicken-2

Next into the pan went a chopped roasted red Bell pepper – which I’ve found a reasonable substitute for a pimiento – salt, pepper, bay leaf, thyme, chicken broth, and red wine. Then it was just to stir, cover, and simmer until the dish was done. Casas says it takes 1½ hours, but I’ve found an hour to be fine, with the cover off toward the end to reduce the sauce a little.

chicken-3

Initially I wondered if I ought to puree that rough-looking sauce, but we actually liked the effect of the tiny nuggets of chorizo and vegetables in the same bites as the soft, tender chicken. The smoky, pimentòn spiciness of a good dry-cured chorizo gives an unmistakably Spanish lilt to this hearty, rustic dish.

chicken-4

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Compared to its cousin the squid (culinarily familiar as calamari), cuttlefish is still a fairly exotic food in the US. Having enjoyed it very much in Italy (a.k.a. seppia) and Spain (choco), I keep looking for it here. Unfortunately, cuttlefish don’t inhabit American oceans, as squid do, so they rarely appear in our fish markets. But in one store recently I found some lovely little ones, imported from Spain. I bought these three, which weighed in at half a pound:

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seppioline

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Casas MammaI’d found a recipe to make with them in Penelope Casas’s cookbook La Cocina di Mama: The Great Home Cooking of Spain. I’ve had several good results from this book, as well as from other books by this author. I’ve already written about a few of them here, here, and here. The recipe I chose this time, Potage de Garbanzos y Chocos, is a spicy stew of cuttlefish, chickpeas, and potatoes.

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At first reading, I thought the ingredient list was awfully heavy on the chickpea component, given the way dried legumes swell when reconstituted: To serve four, it called for a whole pound of dried chickpeas, as well as a pound of chocos. But I trust Casas, and I had some good heirloom chickpeas from Italy, so for the half recipe I was making I used the full half pound.

Soaked overnight in water, the chickpeas duly grew to three times their dried volume. Undaunted, I put them in a big pot with water, half a head of unpeeled garlic, olive oil, a small chopped tomato, parsley, a bay leaf, a small dried hot red pepper, and half a teaspoon of pimentón dulce (Spanish smoked sweet paprika).

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ceci cooking

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All this simmered for a little over an hour, producing enticing aromas that wafted out of the kitchen and scented half the apartment. When the chickpeas were beginning to soften, I moved on to the next step: adding the choco – neatly cut into short strips by my obliging knifeman – and a few fingerling potatoes.

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chocos added

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After another half hour, everything was tender. To finish the dish, I squeezed the garlic flesh into the stew and discarded the skin, stirred in another dose of pimentón, and let the pot sit covered for 15 minutes before serving.

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served

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It was a marvelous dish – everything worked together beautifully, and the taste fully justified the cooking aromas. The chickpeas had taken on good spicy flavors in addition to their own basic nuttiness. In fact, we couldn’t finish them all, but we got through more than I expected to. There was about a pint of leftovers, mostly chickpeas, which I carefully saved to use another day.

Thoroughly enjoyable as the cuttlefish were, I’d had a slightly uneasy feeling all during dinner, which I later decided was an overactive imagination responding to the splendidly lifelike Venetian glass cuttlefish that have looked over our shoulders for every meal we’ve eaten in this apartment. I couldn’t say for certain that they recognized their Spanish relatives, but the whole cephalopod family is highly intelligent.

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aquarium

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Back in the ‘70s, Tom and I often dined at a small Greenwich Village restaurant called El Rincón de España. We particularly loved the owner-chef’s specialty of octopus in a tangy red sauce, Pulpo a la Carlos. We didn’t know much about Spanish food then, and we never figured out what gave the dish its unusual flavor. (Innocents as we were, it didn’t occur to us to ask.) As time moved on, we grew away from El Rincón (it closed long ago), and it was many years before I became seriously interested in Spanish cooking.

Fast forward to the present. The food on our recent trip to Spain had given us a Pimentonstaste for pimentón – smoked paprika – tins of which we’d brought back and begun experimenting with. One evening Tom concocted a marinade for some shrimp to be broiled, using olive oil, garlic, oregano, and hot pimentón. The first taste of the shrimp was a Proustian moment for us both: This had to be the way Carlos did his pulpo!

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Of course, I had to try it. I was able to buy cooked octopus in a local store, which was a great time- and labor-saver:

cooked octopus

(That’s 2⅓ pounds of octopus – much more than I needed for the two of us, but there’s another octopus recipe, not Spanish, that I intend to try, which I’ll report on here in due time.)

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Casas MammaI also checked my Spanish cookbooks and found a recipe for Pulpo Encebollado (Octopus with Paprika in Simmered Onions) in Penelope Casas’s La Cocina de Mamá that used similar ingredients. It didn’t include a marinade, but the rest of the technique looked good, so I basically adopted it. Another good sign: The headnote mentioned that this was a recipe from Galicia, where octopus is enormously popular. El Rincón’s Carlos was also Galician.

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So: Tom cut up a pound of the octopus tentacles into one-inch pieces and I froze the rest. I simmered 2 minced garlic cloves, 2 teaspoons of hot pimentón, and ½ teaspoon of salt in ⅓ cup of olive oil. When it was cool I poured it over the octopus pieces and let them marinate for a couple of hours, stirring occasionally.

marinating octopus

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In the evening I poured off that seasoned oil and in it softened ¾ cup of minced onions, slowly and covered, so they almost dissolved. Then I added the octopus, stirred in just a little water to keep it from frying, and heated it all through.

final cooking

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It was simply gorgeous. Was it indeed the Pulpo a la Carlos we’d eaten so many years ago? We’re not certain, but it came as close as reminiscence allows. Maybe Carlos added a little tomato puree, to make the whole dish a bit saucier?  I can try that next time – and there will be a next time. Octopus is delicious: Low in fat, high in protein, packed with vitamins and minerals, it has to be the world’s meatiest mollusk. Its succulent flesh seemed to revel in the contrast with the lively pimentón sauce. The plain rice I served alongside absorbed that sauce with enthusiasm, too. It’s an extraordinary pleasure to rediscover – after 40 years! – such a great culinary treat.

octopus plated

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My recent post on the food in my trip to Spain mentioned four items that I wanted to make at home. It didn’t take me long to get to one: the revolcona potato dish I had as a dinner first course at the Hospedería Parque de Monfraguë in Extremadura. It was extraordinarily good, and my captive tasting panel of husband and house guest were standing by to test my version.

This is the dish I had in Spain: revolcona .

You can’t see too much of the potatoes under the “poché egg” – as the English-language menu called it – but they were definitely the star of the combination. I could tell there was smoked paprika in the flavor, which confirmed my resolution to bring some of that Extremenian specialty home with me. I bought modest-sized tins of all three types of Pimentón de la Vera (at a fraction of the cost I’ve ever seen them at in the US). Pimentons .

None of my Spanish cookbooks offered a recipe for revolcona potatoes, but the Internet provided many. I chose this one, which looked as if it would be closest to the version I’d had in Spain. And I decided to make it for a lunch, since the dish my palate remembered so vividly was really too rich and filling for a first course.

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I boiled my potatoes with a bay leaf in the water, then mashed them only roughly, with a little of their cooking water. The next step was to prepare the seasoning mix. I lightly browned some cloves of garlic in olive oil, transferred them to the mini food processor, added a hefty dose of the sweet paprika, a small dose of the hot, salt, and more of the potato cooking water. (The recipe called for cumin also, but I omitted it.) When that was all pureed, I stirred it into the potatoes, which I’d transferred to the garlic-browning skillet. potatoes twice .

While the potatoes were reheating I poached eggs and sizzled some pieces of bacon and prosciutto in another pan. The meat should have been Ibérico ham, but good slab bacon and Parma prosciutto were what I had, and I wanted to see which would make the better combination. Once the meats were ready, the final assembly was easy. Revolcona at home .

My tasting panel declared the dish a success. The potatoes were excellent, but we all agreed they wouldn’t be hurt by a little more zing, so I’ll try going heavier on the hot paprika next time; or maybe replacing the sweet paprika with the bittersweet variety. Both my “inauthentic” pork products were just fine, slightly salty and crisp, in excellent contrast to the almost melting texture of the potatoes and eggs. One other variation I might try is to replace the poached eggs with the wonderful Spanish-style fried eggs that I wrote about here last year. If that’s gilding the lily, I’ll be happy to go for the gold.

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My birding trip in Spain was definitely not focused on gastronomy. All dinners were taken at the simple rural hotels where our group was staying, and lunches were at cafes and other modest eateries in villages along the birding routes. Menus were sometimes limited, with dishes selected in advance for the group by the local leader (and described for us in English, so I never got some of the Spanish names). Nevertheless, we encountered very good food in some of those places, including a few dishes that I hope to be able to recreate at home.

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Lunches were usually a large assortment of tapas for the whole table, ranging from salads to the ubiquitous fried squid. Here are a few of the interesting items. (Click to enlarge the images.)

tapas

Jamón Ibérico, the air-cured Iberian ham at left, is always a treat. The fried cuttlefish were even tastier than their close relatives, squid. Next, potato croquettes – a frequent tapa offering. The medium-sized garden snails, a delicious short-season specialty, appeared to have been cooked with oil, garlic, and smoked paprika. And the last dish on the right is grilled chipirones: very small squid.

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Frequent main courses at dinner included beautifully cooked fresh seafood:

seafood dishes

The tiny fried fish are fresh anchovies. Next, braised octopus. In the middle, a roasted whole choco, or large cuttlefish. More small fried fish, including tiny soles. Last, two tentacles of yet another octopus.

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There were also good, hearty meat and poultry dishes.

3 meat dishes

Left to right, a simple lamb stew with the Basque name Corderico al Txilindron; duck leg confit; and Codillo de cerdo. This last was mystifyingly translated for me as “elbow of pork”; close examination showed it to be a pork shank that had been halved lengthwise through the bone.

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We even came upon some surprisingly elegant and sophisticated preparations. At lunch one day, everyone in our group was served a large, richly eggy crepe filled with wild mushrooms and topped with something like a light Mornay sauce. It was marvelous.

crepe

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Another day, as a dinner appetizer Tom had “ravioli” made with rice papers instead of pasta, filled with a creamy mixture of pears and oveja cheese, topped with pesto, and served on a bed of ratatouille. An improbable combination, it seemed to me, but intriguing and very flavorful.

ravioli

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That same evening, my appetizer was a cake of spicy revolcona potatoes topped with a perfectly poached egg and surrounded by quickly sauteed Ibérico ham. That in itself was almost enough for a dinner!

revolcona

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Finally, the most noteworthy dessert I had in Spain was Torrija. This traditional sweet is a sort of hybrid of French toast and bread pudding, and this version came with a crunchy crème brûlée topping. Quite luscious.

torrija

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These last four dishes are the ones I’m determined to try making at home. If I succeed, you may be meeting them again in future posts.

P.S. Tom’s blog has a post on some of the wines we drank in Spain.

 

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