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Archive for the ‘Baked goods’ Category

Lemon Chiffon Pie

My recipe this week comes with a big backstory. This pie came about because I’d finally persuaded Beloved Spouse that our apartment absolutely had to be painted, before flakes of the cracked 10-year-old paint job began falling off the walls. He hated the disruptions it would cause (we’d be living there the whole time), but he capitulated. Shortly before we descended into the abyss, I laid in a supply of calming medications.

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Each evening when the painters had gone, we’d creep out of whichever room they’d left for us to inhabit that day, pick our way through heaps of clumsy equipment and masses of shrouded furniture, and take our daily dose.
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Life went on like this for three. whole. weeks. But eventually the work came to an end, and we found ourselves – livers intact but psyches slightly dented – in a bright, cheerful apartment with smooth walls of a lovely lemon chiffon color. I decided to celebrate our survival by making a lemon chiffon pie.
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I’d never made a lemon chiffon pie, so I turned to the recipe in Bernard Clayton’s Complete Book of Pastry. It gave lots of advice on handling gelatin fillings and offered a choice of three kinds of pastry crust. The easiest one was said to be crumb crust – which I’d also never made before – so I bought a box of graham crackers and set to work. Having done so, I can’t say I agree about the easiness.

Turning those grahams into “1½ cups (6 ounces) fine crumbs” was a piece of work, especially because my weighed-out 6 ounces of crackers came nowhere near 1½ cups of crumbs. What to do – go with the weight or go with the volume? I chose volume and kept feeding crackers into the processor until I achieved it.
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I mixed the crumbs with ½ cup of sugar and ½ cup of melted butter, poured them into a pie dish, and shaped the crust. That wasn’t so easy either. Grumbling to myself that I’d have had a normal short pastry crust all done by now, I pushed and pressed those slithery crumbs around and around until they finally looked like a bottom pie crust.

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Into the refrigerator it went while I made the lemon custard. I softened an envelope of unflavored gelatin in ¼ cup of water. I grated a teaspoonful of lemon rind and squeezed two big lemons to obtain ½ cup of juice. I separated three eggs. I mixed the yolks in ½ cup of sugar in the top of a double boiler and cooked until it thickened a bit.
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Then I had to stir in the gelatin, lemon juice, and rind, and put the mixture into the refrigerator “until slightly thickened.” There I made my big mistake. With all Clayton’s warnings about working with gelatin, he neglected at this point to say Don’t let it firm up too much. Duh! I left it too long.

As a result, when I’d whipped the egg whites and tried to fold them in, they wouldn’t. The semi-solid gelatin wanted nothing to do with the whites. I had to practically cut the gelatin part into little pieces, smush them against the sides of the bowl with a spoon to soften them, and even go right in with my (very clean) fingers and squeeze the lumps to break them up.
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When I gave up, the filling still wasn’t fully smooth but it was the best I could do. I put it into the crumb crust and chilled it again. The recipe also called for a topping of sweetened whipped cream, but from finger-licking samples of crust and filling that I’d taken, I knew the pie was going to be plenty sweet enough for us, so I skipped that. (The filling looks white below, but that’s a peculiarity of the light at the time. It was pale yellow.)
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When sliced, the pie still looked awfully messy – crumbly crust and bumpy filling – but you know what? It tasted just fine! On the tongue, the texture defects were unnoticeable. The filling was very sweet, very lemony, and exactly the color of our newly painted walls.
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This was not what I’d call a pie to be proud of, but as a family dessert to commemorate the end of our painterly tribulations, it was a worthwhile experiment. And it was one more episode in my ongoing culinary education.

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The culinary world must contain an infinite number of cheesecake recipes. The cheese component of any one version may consist of only cream cheese, only cottage cheese, only ricotta, or some combination of those, in widely differing proportions. Similarly variable are the indicated quantities of eggs, sugar, sour cream (if any), and flour vs. cornstarch.

While I’ve never had a cheesecake I didn’t like, I’m not a frequent baker of the things. For many years, if I felt like making a cheesecake, or Beloved Spouse asked for one, I’d go straight to the recipe on the back of the Argo cornstarch box. (Yes, Virginia, Argo once came in a modest cardboard box with a cheesecake recipe on the back. Now it’s in a bulky plastic bin, and the recipes on it are for generic gravy and play clay for kids. O tempora, o mores!)
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Fortunately, I copied out the Argo cheesecake recipe for myself long ago. It calls for a pound each of cottage cheese, cream cheese, and sour cream; plus sugar, cornstarch, eggs, melted butter, lemon juice, and vanilla. I generally make a half recipe’s worth and skip its graham cracker crust entirely.

My refrigerator never normally contains sour cream, cream cheese, and cottage cheese or ricotta at the same time, though at times it has at least some of one or two of them – usually left over from other uses. So I got into the habit of varying the half recipe’s proportions of those three according to what I had on hand, and buying the remaining item or two. For example, some of the variations I’ve made notes on are:

  • 1 pound ricotta, 1 cup sour cream, 2 ounces cream cheese
  • ½ pound ricotta, ½ cup sour cream, 5 ounces cream cheese

I’d adjust the other dry and wet ingredients to achieve a reasonable looking batter and proceed to bake the combination according to the recipe. Every one of my mongrel combinations turned into an actual cheesecake, with a decent texture and a pleasant flavor.

Thus encouraged, this latest baking day, I went way out on a limb. Clockwise from the sour cream in the picture below (the only thing I had to buy) are 6 ounces of cream cheese, 4½ ounces of sheep’s milk ricotta salata, and 2½ ounces of regular ricotta from buffalo milk.
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Now, ricotta salata is a fine addition to many good dishes, but it’s not used in desserts. This salted and pressed variety of ricotta is dense, crumbly, and lightly salty. I chose to use it in part from an urge to clear my refrigerator of small leftovers and in part out of curiosity, to see what I’d get by blending this firm, dry, sharpish cheese with my remnant of soft, sweet, creamy buffalo ricotta, which was just about swimming in its own whey.

I whomped the ricottas together in my heavy-duty mixer, then worked in the cream cheese, 2 beaten eggs, and ⅔ cup of sugar. When that was well mixed I added 2½ tablespoons of cornstarch, ½ teaspoon of vanilla, and 1½ teaspoons of lemon juice. That gave me just a quart of not-very-thick batter. I’d have liked to bake it in a deep dish, but the only suitable sizes I had were shallow pie dishes. One of those would have to do.
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The dish went into a 325° oven for one hour, then sat in the turned-off oven for two more hours. The cheesecake firmed and puffed up nicely.
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It was a really quirky tasting cheesecake – not unpleasant, but only slightly dessert-sweet. It seemed to be approaching a savory baked custard, like a crustless quiche. I must admit the texture was a bit grainy. I really should have pushed the ricotta salata through a fine sieve before beating it into the fresh ricotta. Not sieving is a shortcut I often take with my cheesecakes. Sometimes it doesn’t seem to matter; this time it did.
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The cheesecake was as usual quite rich. Its savoriness made it go well with a glass of white wine. There was enough of it to last us for several days, and its texture seemed to smooth out somewhat with time. Still, it’s not an experiment I’m likely to repeat.

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We’re having a great summer for peaches. While a few months ago, newspapers were predicting a peachless year because of devastating winter crop losses in Georgia and South Carolina, that’s not the case here in the northeast. Peaches from southern New Jersey are plump, plentiful, fragrant, and sweet. Here’s a recent batch at my favorite greenmarket peach purveyor, Kernan Farms.
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I can’t pass by the stand without picking up a few. And since some of these beauties weigh three quarters of a pound, I find myself with a lot of rapidly ripening fruit that needs to be done something with.
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This is far from a problem from Beloved Spouse’s point of view: He happily consumes the peach pie, peach cake, peach cobbler, peach bread pudding, baked peaches, and peach jam that I make for him.

Browsing my cookbooks for another “peach something” to add to my tool kit, I came upon a recipe called Rustic Fruit Focaccia in Michele Scicolone’s Italian Vegetable Cookbook. Now, focaccia is usually a savory bread (such as I wrote about here) but, as Michele explains, in Tuscany in autumn they make this flat bread with a topping of ripe wine grapes. She also says it’s good with other fruits too, such as peaches. Well, just the thing!

The dough for this focaccia isn’t kneaded at all: You simply stir together flour, sugar, salt, yeast, olive oil, and water until it becomes a rough ball. I suppose that’s what makes it “rustic.”

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The dough rises once in the bowl, then is spread out thinly over a shallow rectangular baking pan and rises again. While it was doing that, I was peeling and slicing peaches.
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The illustration in the book shows a focaccia topped with nectarines and blueberries. That looked good, but I had some raspberries in the refrigerator, so I dotted them on the dough along with the peaches, sprinkled a little sugar over it all, and baked it in a moderate oven for about half an hour.
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The edges of my focaccia crisped and browned just as they ought, but my fruit was so juicy that the central bread part of the crust didn’t. Still, it was fully baked and had risen about as much as expected. So I took it out of the oven, let it partially cool on a rack, and cut pieces for a week-night dinner dessert.
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This is definitely not a very sweet confection. Michele says she likes it mostly for breakfast or afternoon tea. We were happy enough with it in the evening, especially with a veil of powdered sugar. It made a nice, light, crunchy fruit dessert. But I agree that its true destiny is as a breakfast or midday treat, which is how we promptly devoured the whole rest of the focaccia. By midwinter, we’ll be longing for fresh fruit flavors like this.

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In the immortal words of Nellie Forbush, I’m as corny as Kansas in August! – only in my case it’s the vegetable I mean. It’s high corn season in my greenmarket now, and I’m reveling in it.

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One day recently a Washington Post article called “Easy, Delicious Recipes for Sweet Summer Corn” gave me some new ideas for using my favorite summer vegetable. The first one that caught my interest was a corn soufflé recipe. The article’s headnote praises the recipe for eliminating “the stumbling blocks in making a soufflé – beating separate egg whites, cooking a base sauce, the anxiety of it not rising.”

Sounds good, doesn’t it? I didn’t see how a soufflé could rise without egg whites beaten into peaks, but maybe there was something to be learned here. I’d try it for a dinner for two. I gathered my ingredients – fresh corn, poblano pepper, gruyère cheese, eggs, half-and-half, salt, pepper, and chives. (Forgot to put the chives in the picture.) That seemed like a tasty combination; despite my doubts we were off to a good start.
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The recipe wanted all the ingredients to be pureed in a blender, but that quantity would have filled my cranky old blender so high that at first pulse it would’ve shot liquid out past the lid. I used my food processor instead.
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The recipe recommended baking the mixture in individual half- or one-cup ramekins or in a larger four-cup dish. For our dinner first courses I always bake individual soufflés in two-cup porcelain molds, so that’s what I used, even though this was a recipe for four persons.
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With no need for last-minute preparation and addition of fragile aerated egg whites, I was able to do all this hours in advance, putting the molds in the refrigerator until nearly dinner time. Then I baked them for about half an hour at 400°. They puffed up somewhat, but barely to the rims of the dishes. Nothing magic had happened.
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They began to deflate instantly, before I could even get the camera to them, and by the time they made it to the dinner table, they had sunken much further. We tasted them skeptically. Surprise: They were quite good. Beautifully corny, rich and dense, with a subtle blending of the poblano, chives, and cheese flavors. They had become a creamy, nubbly, slightly sweet, slightly spicy, very enjoyable summery whole. But they were not soufflés.

The whole point of a soufflé is lightness. What we had here were savory vegetable custards, much like crustless quiche. They were rich and very filling: Even though we liked them, neither of us could finish more than half our portion. No wonder the recipe called for small ramekins!

The newspaper’s recipe was lightly adapted from one in the book Heart and Soul in the Kitchen by Jacques Pepin, the celebrity chef, TV personality, and prolific cookbook author. I knew he had a reputation as a popularizer, but I’m still surprised that a professional cook – and a Frenchman to boot – would say something is a soufflé when it absolutely is not. He did, though: I checked his own recipe online, and that’s what he calls it.

I think that’s a disservice to people who don’t know what a soufflé really is, as well as to anyone who makes the recipe expecting it to produce real soufflés. However, at least the dish is a respectable one of its kind and a very pleasant use for high-summer corn.

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The calendar says it’s spring, but the weather hasn’t been fully cooperative. What do you do on an unseasonably raw, dark, damp day? Easy: Have friends over for a bollito misto dinner.

In English, a “mixed boil” doesn’t sound overly attractive, but this northern Italian meat extravaganza is truly marvelous. I remember a long-ago winter day in Ferrara when Beloved Spouse and I lurched out of the icy blasts and into the warmth of a restaurant where all the lunchtime patrons were comforting themselves with bollito misto, served from a steaming silver cart that a waiter rolled around to each table. That was our first taste of this now-indispensable bad-weather balm.

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For this occasion, I embellished the bollito with a multi-course menu of dishes from my book The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen. We started with an antipasto of grilled radicchio with smoked mozzarella.

Several red-leaved members of the chicory family are known as radicchio. This dish wants the long, slender Treviso variety. The radicchio heads are halved and pan-grilled with a little olive oil, salt, and pepper; then placed in a baking pan, topped with smoked scamorza or mozzarella (scamorza is better, if you can find it), and baked until the cheese melts. The combination of smoky-lush cheese and savory-bitter radicchio makes a bracing wake-up call to the appetite.

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Next came a first course of passatelli in brodo.

Long, gentle boiling of several kinds of meat – on this day eye of chuck, chicken thighs, and veal tongue – produces a wonderfully rich broth. A bowl of it is purely ambrosial with passatelli. To make these tiny shreds of dumpling, you mix breadcrumbs, grated parmigiano, eggs, parsley, salt, pepper, and nutmeg into a soft paste. Dip out a quantity of broth into a separate pot; bring it to a boil; set a food mill over the pot; and mill the passatelli mixture directly into it. Cook two minutes, let rest two minutes, and serve. This is the soul’s plasma, so be prepared to offer seconds.

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Finally, the main event of the evening: the meats and their condiments.

In addition to the beef, chicken, and tongue, I separately cooked a large, unctuous cotechino sausage. Alongside we had potatoes mashed with parmigiano; salsa rossa (a thick, nubbly sauce that I make from roasted sweet peppers, onions, garlic, tomatoes, and red wine vinegar), and mostarda di Cremona – fruits preserved in a strong mustard syrup (jars of which I bring back from every trip to Italy). All in all, they made richly satisfying platefuls, with the sweet/sharp flavors of the two condiments playing beautifully off the lushness of the meats.

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And to finish the meal, a pizza dolce, or ricotta torte.

The pastry for this looking-toward-Easter dessert is a tender pasta frolla. The ricotta filling is flavored with confectioners’ sugar, cinnamon, vanilla, chopped almonds, and chopped candied citron and orange peel. For this evening’s torte I diverged a bit from my published recipe: I used very fresh sheep’s milk ricotta; orange peel alone, and a combination of almonds, walnuts, and hazelnuts. Came out just fine!

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I always thought of shrimp sandwiches as using cold, mayonnaise-based shrimp salad. Now I’ve discovered a different kind of shrimp sandwich – warm, spicy, saucy, and good! The recipe, from Richard Sandoval’s New Latin Flavors, is called Tortas con Camarones al Ajillo, or Garlic Shrimp Tortas. One further reason I liked it was that most of the ingredients are things I keep in the kitchen or can get easily, so no special shopping was required.

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I did change a few things when I made the recipe. First, it calls for just “crusty rolls,” which could be anything: French, kaiser, ciabatta, etc. I wanted to have true Mexican torta rolls. Online research told me there are two varieties, called telera and bolillo, which seem to be identical except for the way the tops are slashed. I found a nice recipe for them on the King Arthur Flour website and baked a small batch, using the easier bolillo slash.

 

The next day I was ready to make the tortas for lunch. For two sandwiches, the recipe calls for ¾ pound of shrimp. That sounded like too much for the size of my rolls, so I used only ½ pound. I peeled them, sprinkled on salt and pepper, and let them sit while I started their sauce. (Cook’s confession: I never bother to devein shrimp unless the veins are grossly unsightly.)

I persuaded Beloved Spouse to stem, seed, and cut up two small dried de árbol chiles, a variety I like very much, while I sliced two cloves of garlic very thin. These went into a large pan along with olive oil and a bay leaf, and sauteed until the garlic began to brown.

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I added the shrimp and cooked very briefly, until they just turned opaque . . .
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. . . and removed them from the pan. Into it I poured in ¾ cup of white wine and 1½ tablespoons of lemon juice and cooked until the liquid had reduced by half. Off heat, I put the shrimp back in and left them there to soak up flavors while I prepared the rest of the ingredients.

The tortas were to receive a garnish of tomato slices and a heap of baby arugula. For several days previously I’d had some halfway-flavorful Mexican tomatoes – winter’s best option – and a big plastic box of wild arugula, both of which I’d been using. Alas, when I reopened the box this time, the arugula had gone slimy. I had to substitute shredded Boston lettuce – a much milder green.

While two split bolillos were toasting lightly, I reheated the shrimp, taking out the pieces of chile and the bay leaf, stirring in a teaspoon of chopped parsley and the grated zest of half a lemon, and dissolving two tablespoons of thinly sliced butter into the sauce for a final enrichment.

At last I could put together the tortas. The bottom half of a roll on a plate; the shrimp heaped on, the sauce poured over, plus tomato slices, lettuce, and the top half of the roll.

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Though a little messy to eat, the tortas were scrumptious. There was an almost symphonic interplay of flavors and textures – nutty sweetness of shrimp, subtle scent of garlic, spicy heat of chiles, bright acidity of wine and lemon, richness of butter, softness of tomato, and crispness of lettuce, all contained by a very tasty roll. I only regret having lost the arugula – it would have made another tangy element. Next time, for sure!

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byrn-american-cakeI’ve just acquired an intriguing new cookbook, devoted entirely to cakes. Anne Byrn’s American Cake tells the story of cake making in this country from colonial days forward, illustrating changing trends and fashions in baking with well-documented classic recipes and gorgeous photography. I’ve never been much of a cake maker, relying more on pies and tarts for dessert-making occasions, but this book looked like a good opportunity to try new things.

As soon as the book arrived, Beloved Spouse – who has developed more of a sweet tooth than he had when we were young – fell on it joyfully and put in an immediate request for its Boston cream pie, a kind of cake I’d never made before and could only vaguely remember even having tasted:
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This picture made it look almost cloyingly rich, oozing with custard between the layers of cake and dripping with a thick chocolate glaze. I was sure the two of us wouldn’t be able to consume a whole cake that size before it went stale.

Then I had my Great Idea: Make half of it! Instead of baking two layers of cake, bake only one, slice it in half, and put the halves together with half batches of the custard and the glaze.  What simplicity! What genius!

It was easy enough to reduce the quantities of the ingredients, but it’s still an elaborate process to follow. I had to start early in the day, because the custard had to be made and chilled for at least five hours before being used.

First I whisked together milk, sugar, gelatin, and salt in a saucepan and simmered it until the sugar and gelatin were dissolved. Next I whisked together an egg yolk, cornstarch, and a little more milk, and gradually combined the two mixtures. It all went back into the saucepan, to be cooked and whisked continually until it thickened. It did, very properly. So far, so good.

I strained that mixture into a bowl, stirred in butter and vanilla, and whisked, yet again, until the custard was smooth. Covered the bowl with plastic wrap, pressing it right down onto the surface of the custard, and set it in the refrigerator.
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Then it was on to the cake. I creamed butter, sugar, and vanilla in the heavy-duty mixer, beat in an egg, then added flour, baking powder, and salt, alternately with milk, to make a smooth batter. The batter baked in a greased 8-inch round pan for about 20 minutes, until the cake was golden. Unmolded, it had to cool completely on a rack.
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I sliced the cake in half, put one piece on a plate, spread the custard filling over it, topped it with the other cake piece, and put the plate in the refrigerator while I made the glaze. That was easier to do than I expected. In a saucepan I melted semisweet chocolate, heavy cream, and a little syrup. (It should have been corn syrup but I didn’t have any and didn’t want to buy a whole bottle for one tablespoon’s worth, so I just made up a bit of simple sugar syrup.) Off heat, I added vanilla and stirred until the glaze was smooth.

The last step was to pour that glaze over the cake and let it drip artistically down the sides, as shown in the book’s photo above. That was not as easy as it sounds, as you can see from my results. There must be an art to manipulating glaze that I never learned.
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And if you think that looks terrible, have a peek at the cut side of the cake.
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Not a thing of beauty, and not one I’d dare set before anyone other than ourselves. But you know what? – It was great. The textures and flavors of cake, custard, and glaze made a marvelous combination. Not as overly sweet as I’d feared it was going to be, either. I now see why Boston cream pie is such a classic American dessert.

And, when sliced and served, it was almost decent looking.
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Beloved Spouse would like another.

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