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Archive for the ‘Baked goods’ Category

Police inspector Salvo Montalbano, hero of Andrea Camilleri’s Sicilian mystery novels, is an impassioned consumer of local foods, eating his way through dishes often fully described in the books. The latest volume gives Montalbano a role reversal: he goes undercover as the cook aboard a mega-yacht cruise that will be hosting an international criminal summit.

Readers, please note: If you haven’t read The Cook of the Halcyon but intend to, you might want to skip this post. I won’t be able to avoid spoilers.

Between the yacht’s crew and the guests, Montalbano will have to make meals for 12 people. To prepare for the role, he gathers recipes from his housekeeper, Adelina, and his restaurateur friend, Enzo. And he manages the cooking well, once on the ship – a fact that devoted Montalbano fans may find hard to credit, as he has never before been known to cook anything whatsoever. But so we are told.

On a critical day in the cruise, Montalbano makes a potato gâteau for the dinner’s first course. (In the book’s original Italian, the word may have been gattò.) He uses a big sack of potatoes, a dozen eggs, two kinds of cheese, ham, olives, and one very special item. The combination sounded interesting, so I thought I’d try to create a tiny version. Here are my ingredients.
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In the front are two ounces of chopped Castelvetrano olives, two ounces of chopped fontina cheese, and two ounces of chopped ham. Behind them are one egg white, one whole egg, and some grated Parmigiano. On the right, one pound of potatoes, mashed.

I beat the whole egg into the potatoes, spread half of them in a small buttered casserole dish, laid on the three chopped ingredients, and topped with grated cheese.

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I covered the filling with the remaining potatoes and spread the extra egg white over the top, as Montalbano did. My only divergence from his procedure was omission of the “very special item.” Verb. sap. sat.
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Montalbano baked his gâteau for half an hour, and his egg white topping became a brown glaze. We aren’t given an oven temperature, so I tried 350°. Not hot enough: after an extra 10 minutes, I raised the heat to 400°, and though my gâteau eventually firmed up well and even puffed a little, the glaze had spread unevenly and hardly colored at all.
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Nevertheless, it was a very tasty dish. On the plate, the potatoes and filling made a nicely varied flavor blend – piqued by the excellent Castelvetrano olives. The gâteau could certainly have stood alone as a first course, though it went very well alongside our sauteed fillets of sea bass.
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The only part of it we didn’t care for was the glaze, which was mostly a dry skin. Next time, instead of the egg whites, I’ll dot butter over the top layer of potatoes. This is a versatile dish that I can imagine pairing with almost any dry-cooked fish, fowl, or flesh. One could easily vary the filling ingredients, too.

P.S.  As readers of the book well know, Montalbano’s own gâteau was a truly memorable dish for the guests and crew of the Halcyon.

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If this summer’s Olympics had had an event for Dumb Cooking Mistakes, I’d have gotten a gold. It was by pure luck that I was able to salvage the very promising Italian vegetable dish on which I had committed the idiocy.

But let me tell it from the beginning.

From the collection of summer vegetables I’d written about here last week, there was one left of the small eggplants, still firm, plump, and shiny.
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I’d saved it to use for a recipe simply called Eggplant with Mozzarella, which I’d noticed for the first time while browsing the vegetable section of this little Neapolitan cookbook – another book I’ve had for years, where I can still discover treasures.

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Basically, you fry eggplant slices, sandwich a slice of mozzarella between each pair, and bake them in the oven with tomato sauce, beaten egg, and grated parmigiano for just 15 minutes. Seemed easy enough. I peeled and sliced my eggplant, salted the slices, and left them in a colander for half an hour to drain off some of their liquid.

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Then I pressed them dry in a cloth, floured them, and browned them well in olive oil.
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Here are half the slices, placed in the baking dish, topped with mozzarella, and awaiting the upper halves of the sandwiches. The sauce ingredients are sitting behind them. All well so far.
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But then I made my ridiculous blooper. This is what the recipe says:

Cospargere le melanzane ripiene con due uova battute con sale e pepe, qualche cucchiaiata di salsa di pomodoro e una spolverata di parmigiano grattugiato.

Now, in a well written English recipe, that might be given as “Beat two eggs with salt, pepper, a few tablespoons of tomato sauce and a sprinkling of grated parmigiano. Pour the mixture over the stuffed eggplant.”

But the phrasing of the Italian is, “Spread over the stuffed eggplant two eggs beaten with salt and pepper, a few tablespoons of tomato sauce and a sprinkling of grated parmigiano.” So what I did was add the three things one after the other. I somehow had the idea that they’d all blend together in the oven.
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Anyone with half a brain would have realized that wouldn’t happen. When I looked in after the dish was in the oven for a little while, everything still sat right where I’d put it and the egg was already firming up on its own. Aarrgh!

I pulled out the dish and quickly tried to scrape the tomato sauce and cheese off the eggplant, mix them into the half-scrambled puddle of egg, and spoon some of it back over the eggplant. Didn’t work all that well, but I put the dish back into the oven to finish its 15 minutes of baking.

It came out pretty sad looking.

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But the gods who take care of culinary idiots were on the job that day, because those little “sandwiches” were fabulous. Yes, you could see that the egg and tomato hadn’t come together properly, but in the mouth their flavors blended brilliantly. It was one of those magical “whole is better than the sum of the parts” creations. And it got even better as it cooled.

Tom had initially raised an eyebrow, but then we both scarfed down every bit. I was so relieved!

 

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A cobbler can be a great fruit pastry for an ease-loving home baker. You do have to make and roll out dough but, unlike making a pie, you don’t have to fit a round of dough into the baking dish, fit another round over the fruit filling, trim and seal the two together, and shape an attractive rim.

The cobbler section of Lee Bailey’s book Country Desserts opens with a two-page spread showing a rustic blackberry cobbler, made with dough merely partially folded over the berry filling, leaving large (artistically placed?) gaps.
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In the recipe headnote, the author declares this to be his favorite kind of cobbler. I’ve made and enjoyed his peach cobbler, so the prospect of an even tastier one was very tempting. And berries are easier to work with than other fruits: no peeling or slicing needed.

There were no fresh blackberries in my Greenmarket yet, so I bought a commercial pack. Happily, it contained three cups of berries, which was exactly right for a half recipe’s worth.

I usually make pastry in my heavy-duty mixer, but this recipe requires a food processor, because it calls for frozen butter and frozen vegetable shortening. That’s certainly a way to keep the dough cool, but I’ve never had trouble using just chilled fats and very cold water.  This should have been my first clue that Bailey’s favorite cobbler might require a bit more effort and complication than other, less special, ones.
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The processor noisily and laboriously turned the frozen fats, flour, and salt into a rough crumble. Then I had to trickle in more ice water than called for, in order to make it gather into a mass. Good thing the fat was frozen: in the process, the machine had thrown a lot of heat.
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The dough, shaped by hand into a ball, had to rest in the refrigerator for 30 minutes. I used the time to clean the dough residue from the processor parts, which was harder than cleaning my stainless steel mixer bowl. Another clue? Hmpf!

When it was time to roll out the dough, I faced a mathematical question. If a whole recipe needs a circle of dough 15 inches in diameter, how big should the circle be for half a recipe? It was obvious that a half-sized circle – 7½ inches – would be too small, so I resorted to my trusty A = π r² formula and rolled the dough to 11 inches.
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Probably unnecessary precision, as I realized later. I could just have eyeballed the job. I think I was already a little spooked. Anyway, I draped the dough over a small pie dish and heaped the berries in the middle, adding sugar and dots of butter.
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Here I diverged from the recipe. For three cups of berries, it would have wanted six tablespoons of sugar – much too much, I thought. I gave it three tablespoons. Then, just before closing over the dough, I chickened out to the extent of one more tablespoon. In the upshot, that was unnecessary: Those berries were plenty sweet already.

Back to following directions, I folded the overhanging dough around the filling (it wasn’t supposed to cover completely), and sprinkled a little more sugar over the crust.
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The cobbler baked at 425° for 45 minutes, to come out lightly browned and bubbling – and with a large puddle of breakthrough juices. Hmpf again!
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Inartistically messy as it looked, my blackberry cobbler was delicious. Perhaps a bit too sweet for us, but richly berryish and with a firm, tasty crust. Well worth the amount of unexpected effort it took. (Though next time I might try making the crust with unfrozen fats.)
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The half of it that we couldn’t finish for dessert that evening made a sinfully good breakfast the next morning. That none of it lasted longer than that is a testimony to how much we enjoyed it.

 

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The herbs I planted on my building’s roof garden, which I mentioned in my last post, are doing well.

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Picking them has been perilous for a few weeks, because of a militant mockingbird that attacked anyone who stepped out onto the roof, which he considered his territory. At last, his babies have fledged and left the nest he was guarding up there, and I can tend my tiny herb garden in peace.

The herb that most needs frequent cutting back is the dill, which has been flowering so fast, it’d soon be setting seed and dying off. To help redirect its attention to new shoots, I snipped some of its feathery-leaved flowering stems to use in two recipes I made for the first time this week.
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Dakhini Saag: Spinach with Dill

This dish from Madhur Jaffrey’s Vegetarian India is a specialty of Hyderabad, a city in southern India. Jaffrey says it’s “a simple but very flavorful spinach dish.” Given the number of ingredients listed in the recipe, I wasn’t sure I’d regard it as simple, but by the same token I could see it was certainly going to have a lot of flavors. It looked like fun.

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To begin, the spinach had to be wilted in boiling water, drained, cooled, and squeezed. Then I called my bespoke knife man into action, and he gallantly rose to the occasion. Clockwise from lower right, here are the spinach, chopped; sliced fresh spring onion; diced heirloom tomato; sliced Spanish onion; chopped dill; chopped garlic; salt, cumin seeds, turmeric, and red chili powder.
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Actually, once those components were prepared, the dish really was quite simple to make. First, I sauteed the cumin seeds, Spanish onion, and garlic for a few minutes over medium heat.
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Next, I lowered the heat, added the spinach, dill, salt, turmeric, and chili powder, and cooked all that for two minutes.
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Last, I stirred in the diced tomato and spring onion.
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Another two minutes’ cooking made the dish ready to eat.

And very good it was.The very first taste was purely moist, tender spinach, but each forkful opened in the mouth to reveal the flavors of the seasonings – mainly dill, but also subtle accents of spring onion, cumin, and chili. (The tiny cubes of tomato, being of necessity hothouse, served mostly for appearance.) A nice middle choice between plain spinach and a composed dish.
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Jennifer’s Dill Bread

Long ago, my friend Jennifer, with whom I’ve shared many recipes back and forth, gave me her hand-written one for dill bread. It had her small variations on a recipe that a family friend had given her even longer ago. I saved it in my big recipe binder, but this folksy American yeast bread made with cottage cheese never quite caught my interest enough to try. Now, with my dill needing to be used, it seemed to be time.

The recipe directions were simple in the extreme – they started with “Soften yeast in water. Combine all except flour.” The “all” was cottage cheese, sugar, salt, baking soda, minced onion, softened butter, an egg, and dill weed.
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Next was to add “enough flour to form a stiff dough.” Here, I had to go astray. The ingredient list said 2¼ to 2½ cups. In my heavy-duty mixer with the dough hook, 2½ cups of flour produced only a thick, heavy batter. I added more flour. And more. And more. (I think there was too much whey in my cottage cheese.) This is apparently supposed to be a no-knead dough, but mine was thoroughly kneaded by the time I achieved a dough thick enough to hold together in a ball.
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It rose nicely in a gently warmed, turned-off oven, though with all that extra flour, it took longer than the expected one hour to double in bulk.
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I punched the dough down, shaped it into a ball, and was then supposed to put it in an 8-inch round casserole to rise again. I don’t have a dish that size, so I substituted a buttered 8-inch pie tin and prayed that the free-standing loaf would support itself as it rose in the turned-off oven. It did.
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A bit over an hour of baking at a more moderate temperature than I usually use for breads (350°) produced a plump brown loaf. The final touch was to brush the crust with butter and sprinkle it with sea salt.

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Sliced, it revealed a soft, light crumb with a wheaty sweetness and a gentle fragrance of dill. (Might have been dillier if I hadn’t had to add so much extra flour.) It was good as a dinner bread, good for sandwiches, and good for morning toast. Although it will never replace my all-time favorite White Bread Plus from Joy of Cooking, this folksy recipe made a versatile and tasty loaf.
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Naples’ church of Santa Chiara is world-famous for its exquisite 18th Century majolica-tiled cloister and garden.

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Dating from the same period, and similarly famous in Italy, is its culinary specialty: il gattò Santa Chiara. This is a savory bread-cake hybrid (gattò is an Italianization of the French gâteau) created by the nuns of the convent..

The yeast-raised dough is enriched with mashed potato, eggs, and lard, then speckled with meats and cheeses – most often cooked ham and mozzarella. There’s a gattò recipe in Tom’s and my book The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen, but I haven’t been totally satisfied with the results, so this week I tried giving it a few tweaks.

 

On the morning of baking day, even before my coffee was ready, I started a yeast sponge, stirring together two teaspoons of dry yeast, two tablespoons of water, and two tablespoons of flour.

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The little bowl sat on the kitchen counter for two hours, until it was puffed and bubbly. Later in the morning, I prepared the other ingredients you see below: clockwise from top left, half a boiled russet potato, two beaten eggs, an ounce and a half of lard, three ounces of boiled ham, the risen sponge, and four ounces of mozzarella.

I’d increased my recipe’s quantities of all those items except the sponge.

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After beating the potato (mashed), the lard (melted and cooled), and the eggs into the recipe’s specified two cups of flour and teaspoon of salt, I let my heavy-duty mixer knead the dough. It smoothed out very readily, not needing any additional flour. The next step was to work in the ham and cheese, which I did by hand.
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The finished dough went into a greased nine-inch cake pan, which I covered and left on the countertop to rise. In two hours, it was threatening to overflow the shallow pan, so I wrapped it with a collar of aluminum foil before putting it in the oven at 350°.

 

After 40 minutes in the oven, it had turned a nice golden brown, though it hadn’t risen very much more.

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It took some persuasion to get it out of its pan, but eventually it emerged and allowed itself to be set on a rack to cool. It might be wise to use a springform pan next time.

That evening I warmed wedges of the gattò in the toaster oven and served them as our antipasto, along with slices of prosciutto.
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Sometimes gattò is served alongside simple grilled meats. I haven’t tried that, but the combination should be very good.

As a part of our antipasto, this loaf was quite tasty, as the warmth of the toaster oven intensified the ham and cheese flavors. The soft, dense crumb was almost cake-like, and the crust was pleasantly crunchy. I can’t say it was as fine as the loaves made by the nuns of Santa Chiara, but it was definitely an improvement on my previous version. And the next day, toasted and buttered gattò slices were very nice for breakfast.

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Though potato is the one food named in the title above, it refers only to the casing for a rich baked assortment of meats, mushrooms, herbs, and spices. In Italy’s Piedmont region, La Finanziera is an extravaganza of a stew, involving delicacies such as cockscombs, sweetbreads, and truffles. Applying the approach to more everyday ingredients still makes an excellent dinner dish.

This was the special dish I chose to match with the second of the 12 special wines Tom picked out from his collection to drink, one a month, this year. February’s wine was a 2001 Gaja Costa Russi – also from the Piedmont. I found the recipe on Italian Home Cooking, a blog by Stefano Arturi that I follow. Stefano is a London-based former restaurateur, cookbook author, and cooking teacher. His version of the timbale is an adaptation of one in Il Talismano della Felicità, the great seminal cookbook by Ada Boni. And mine is a slight adaptation of Stefano’s.

I want to show you what the finished dish should look like. (Regular readers may suspect why.) Here’s Stefano’s timballo di patate alla finanziera. The free-standing drum is made of mashed potatoes, with a crust of browned, buttery breadcrumbs. Quite a culinary feat!
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I was making my usual half amount of the recipe, which would still be too much for just two of us, but it wouldn’t have been feasible in a smaller quantity.

I started by preparing the potato. I boiled a big russet potato, mashed it, and mixed in beaten egg, grated parmigiano, ground nutmeg, salt, and pepper.
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My faithful knife man cut up the meats for me. I used luganega sausage, chicken gizzards already prepared in confit, and a small amount of veal sweetbread – not exactly what the recipe calls for, but all things I had on hand.
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In a sauté pan I softened minced onions in butter and olive oil, with bay leaf, sage leaf, ground cloves, cinnamon, crushed juniper berries, grated nutmeg, and black pepper. I added each of the meats in turn, cooking them gently, and ended by deglazing the pan with white wine.
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Earlier, I had soaked, softened, and cut up dried porcini mushrooms and also sliced a few fresh cremini mushrooms. Separately, I sautéed those, also in butter and olive oil, and stirred in the porcini soaking liquid and a little tomato paste.
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When I’d mixed the mushrooms and their juices into the meats, the timbale filling was ready and could be set aside. Now came the tricky part!

A bit intimidated by the prospect of using the recommended tall metal charlotte mold, I chose a broader, shallower Corning ware casserole dish. I slathered the interior heavily with softened butter and coated it with fine, dry, homemade breadcrumbs. On top of that I gingerly poured in some beaten egg, tilted the dish around until the egg covered all the crumbs, and followed with another coat of crumbs.
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Per the recipe directions, I put the mold into the freezer for a while, to make it easier for the potato lining to cling. Which it did, surprisingly easily: With wet fingers, it was just like applying modeling clay.
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In went the filling, with butter dotted on the top. Then a covering of the rest of the potato casing and yet more butter..

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I put the dish in a 350° oven with a sigh of relief. But I was not out of the woods yet. It was supposed to be done in 45 to 60 minutes, when the top was firm and golden. It firmed in about an hour, but it absolutely wouldn’t go golden. I gave it several extra minutes, then took it out anyway and let it rest for the indicated 10 minutes before unmolding.

Disaster! Even after loosening the sides, when I topped the dish with a serving plate and reversed the two, the timbale wouldn’t come out. With repeated shaking, the filling and some of its crust let go and spilled out. The original bottom layer of the crust was stuck to the dish and had to be pried out in chunks, to be laid over the filling.

I refuse to show you what the whole mess looked like. Instead, here’s one of the portions I rescued to put on our dinner plates.
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Despite its total collapse, the timbale was delicious. The meats and mushrooms had retained their individual characteristics, enhanced each other, and picked up more flavor from the gentle medley of spices, herbs, wine, and tomato. The potatoes – even the obviously overcooked layer from the bottom of the dish – had also taken on some of the shared flavors and were delicious too. And it all went perfectly with Tom’s special wine.

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I’d like to add that this dinner was special for us in two further ways. That day, we were celebrating Tom’s birthday, and also, we’d gotten our first Covid vaccine shots. Happiness and relief!

I do wonder why my timbale fell apart, though. Dish the wrong shape or made of the wrong material? Not enough butter or crumbs lining it? Potato layer too thin? Too long in the oven? Or just bad culinary luck?  Stefano, if you’re reading this, I’d be grateful for any thoughts you might have about that!

 

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Santa Claus did all right on the cookie front at our house this year. Tom, serving as Santa’s personal representative, negotiated successfully for three batches of traditional favorites, while I stipulated for the addition of one new-to-me kind.

 

The new one I made is Spritzgebäck, a hazelnut cookie, from a recipe in the Cooking of Germany volume of the Time-Life Foods of the World series. We love hazelnuts, and I found excellent imported Piedmontese nuts in a local specialty store. Making the dough was easy: butter, sugar, egg, vanilla, flour, and ground hazelnuts. But shaping the cookies was awful.

The dough was to go into a pastry bag fitted with a star tip and be pressed out into crescents. My dough was so thick it utterly refused to emerge. Substitutions of three increasingly large-hole tips were to no avail. I had to settle for squeezing it out, messily, from the bag alone. The best shapes I could achieve that way were clumsy semicircles.

They tasted good, though: crunchy, sweet, and nutty. Still, I don’t think this recipe will enter my holiday cookie repertoire. Happily, the traditional cookies I made later were much better behaved.

 

Peanut butter cookies have been part of my Christmases for as long as I can remember. I used to make them exactly as my mother did, but over the years I’ve experimented with various recipes. You can’t really go far wrong with a peanut butter cookie.

The recipe I like most, one I clipped from Saveur magazine many years ago, calls for chunky peanut butter. In all other respects we’re a smooth peanut-butter household, so usually I buy a jar of the chunky just for Christmas. This year I used the smooth I had in the pantry, and chopped some of those excellent hazelnuts into the dough. As always, the cookies came out fine: happy throwbacks to the Christmases of my youth.

 

For this year’s batch of Toll House cookies, I even considered putting in more of those hazelnuts. (I’d bought a lot of them!) But there were chopped walnuts in my freezer that needed to be used, so I decided to stick with them, as usual.

For these cookies I always use the recipe on the Toll House morsels bag, but I noticed that the morsels themselves weren’t quite the same this year. They’re called “dark” now, not “semisweet,” and they’re bigger. The recipe still doesn’t specify light or dark brown sugar, so I tried light brown for a change.

They were good cookies too, though a little different from my standard. More crumbly and less chewy – possibly from the lighter brown sugar? The morsels seemed more intensely chocolaty, which tended to mask the walnuts’ flavor. Next year back to the drawing board, to recover the old style.

 

My third Christmas cookie classic was Ruggelach. Though I make these tiny cream-cheese pastries almost every year, from a recipe of my mother’s, I often vary the filling ingredients. This year I decided to try dates and – guess what! – hazelnuts. They were delicious, as always. Beautifully nutty, with rich little centers of fruit sweetness from the dates.

 

I’d started my cookie making fairly early in the month this year, so it required a certain amount of self-control every day, as we passed them sitting in their decorative tins, to be sure there’d be some left for Santa. Happily, there were.

 

 

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I’m always on the lookout for new recipes for chicken that I can make to tempt the taste buds of my non-chicken-loving spouse. My latest discovery is a dish that I didn’t quite get right but that offers interesting possibilities for future adaptations: an empanada gallega.

I’ve known empanadas as small, savory turnovers. This one, a specialty of Spain’s Galicia region, is a full-sized pie, filled with a mixture of chicken, peppers, onions, and ham, and baked in a bread crust. Here’s its picture in the Cooking of Spain and Portugal volume of the Time-Life Foods of the World series.

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The recipe starts by having you make the bread dough and let it rise fully, before it says anything about preparing the filling. There I almost shot myself in the foot right away, not noticing that there had to be two rises, not one. Happily, I reread the instructions just in time to get started early enough.

As the dough rose, I began working on the filling. For a small half recipe, I put two chicken thighs and several chunks of onion in a pot and poached them in water for 25 minutes.
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As soon as the thighs were cool enough to handle, I skinned, boned, and cut them up. Since my chicken didn’t lend itself to neat ½-inch cubes, as requested, I settled for bite-size chunks.
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Next I had to finely chop about three tablespoons each of onions and prosciutto (an approved substitute for Serrano ham) and a tiny clove of garlic. And to cut the flesh of half a red Bell pepper into ¼-inch squares. The shape of my pepper wasn’t conducive to squareness, either, and I decided somewhat larger pieces would be fine. Every cook is entitled to a little self-expression.
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I sauteed the peppers, onions, and garlic in olive oil for 10 minutes. They started smelling good immediately. I added the ham and ⅓ cup of simple tomato sauce; raised the heat and cooked off most of the moisture; stirred in the chicken pieces, salt, and pepper; and turned off the heat. It all looked good enough to eat, right out of the pan. I resisted; and set the pan aside.
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Returning to the risen bread dough, I deflated it, divided it in two equal pieces, and rolled them out in circles on a floured board. Well, I say “rolled,” but mostly I treated them like pieces of pizza dough, stretching them by hand. The dough was reasonably cooperative.
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I then did something really foolish, which could have been disastrous. I spread the filling on one piece of the dough, laid on and sealed the other piece, and left the pie to rise for a final 20 minutes on the rolling board, not the baking pan.
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I was appalled when I realized what I’d done. How was I going to get that soft, heavy, moisture-filled mound moved onto the baking pan?! I had panicked visions of dinner consisting of a smeary loaf of chicken bread.

It took two of us to do it. With four hands, two large flat spatulas, and a rimless cookie sheet, plus delicate nudging to restore the empanada’s shape once safely on its pan. With a whoof! of relief, I brushed the surface with egg wash.
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In 45 minutes of baking at 375°, my empanada browned nicely and rose into a substantial dome. That surprised me, because I couldn’t imagine the filling would have swelled to raise the crust like that.
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Nor had it. When I cut into the empanada, there was a big air space inside, which somehow had stretched the top crust to eggshell thinness. There was nothing like that in the cookbook’s photo, though a closer look at it suggested the presence of a steam hole at the center – which was not called for in the recipe. That might well have made the difference.
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Despite its peculiar appearance, my empanada was very pleasant to eat. We just crunched our way through the brittle top crust and enjoyed its contrast with the softer crust on the bottom and around the rim.
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And that chicken filling was amazingly good. Even Tom said so. Simple as its condiments were, it had somehow achieved an Iberian flavor, even without Serrano ham. I can easily see myself making chicken this way again, to use as a pot pie filling with a pastry crust, or an oven casserole with a biscuit topping. Even just by itself, with rice or noodles alongside. I can hardly wait!

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Basque Cornmeal Cake

I’m getting fond of making simple, lightly sweet cakes that can serve both as a dinner dessert (e.g., with fruit and/or whipped cream) and for breakfast the next morning (toasted and buttered or just plain). I found an interesting one this week in Bernard Clayton’s book The Breads of France. His Gâteau au Maïs is a curious little country cake, something like a cross between cornbread and pound cake, that’s baked in a charlotte tin.
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Clayton always has interesting things to say about his recipes. Here, he tells us that corn entered Basque cooking with Christopher Columbus, who brought back corn to the Old World as a curiosity. His Basque crew took the foreign grain home to their families, and it became an important part of the local culture.

To make my cake, I brought three eggs to room temperature and melted a stick of butter and let it cool. In a large bowl I mixed ½ cup of cornmeal with ½ cup of sugar and a dash of salt. I separated the eggs and added the yolks to the bowl.
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Very gradually, I drizzled the melted butter into the bowl and whisked everything together.
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I stirred in another ½ cup of cornmeal, making a thick paste, then beat the egg whites to stiff peaks and folded them into the corn mixture.
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The recipe said this would make a thin batter. Not mine: it remained very thick. But it looked good. I buttered my smallest charlotte mold and scraped the cheerful daffodil-yellow mixture into it.
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When the cake had had 30 minutes in a 375° oven, I checked it, as directed, and it was rising and browning, as it should. (The recipe didn’t say what to do if it wasn’t!)
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Another 15 minutes and the cake was done and ready to be unmolded onto a rack. Actually, it needed some persuasion to loosen from the pan, but it conceded in the end. I left it to cool on the rack, as you saw in the first photo above.

Clayton’s headnote says the cake is excellent with fresh fruit, and he especially recommends pineapple. So that’s how we had our first slices of it.
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The cake was indeed very good, all by itself. It had a nice light corn sweetness and a pleasant graininess: both flavor and textural interest. It was also quite nice with the pineapple, though that’s not one of our favorite dessert combinations. Next time I make it, I’ll choose something softer, like a compote of peaches or plums, or a strawberry sauce.

And how was it for breakfast? Just fine. Lightly toasted, it bonded with butter in a shameless love affair.

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Thanksgiving dinner was a two-person affair for Tom and me this year. Sadly, Covid concern kept us away from our traditional holiday meal at the home of friends. To console ourselves, we tried putting together a minimalist celebratory feast.

I acquired a turkey thigh and leg (bought, not grown, Tom hastens to clarify), which together weighed in at a bit over two pounds. Wrinkly creatures, they were.
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I’d only ever roasted whole turkeys before, so I had to do some recipe research for these parts. I found a simple preparation for roasting turkey parts in Julia Child’s The Way to Cook. Per Julia, parts take half the time of a whole bird, which for my two would mean two hours at 325°, for an internal temperature of 165°. Mindful of turkey’s tendency to be dry, I spread softened butter all over the two parts and basted them every 30 minutes with their own juices and hot water.
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Meanwhile, to approximate the traditional Thanksgiving bounty of multiple vegetable dishes, in my hotter oven I roasted a pan of winter vegetables, using ones I had on hand: a white sweet potato, a carrot, some chunks of Spanish onion, the end of a fennel bulb, and a few Brussels sprouts.
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And I made a very small batch of cranberry-orange relish: one cup of cranberries and half of a clementine, rind and all.
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A special treat for our first course was oeufs au cheval. I’ve written here about this appetizer of white bread fried in butter; spread with foie gras, topped with a butter-fried egg; sprinkled with grated parmigiano and paprika, and finished under a broiler. The eggs were unusually uncooperative this day, apparently adapting perfectly to the ambience of 2020, so our plates weren’t as pretty as earlier ones I’d made, but they tasted just as good.
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Then it was time for the turkey. When two hours in the oven were up, the thigh and leg were a crisp rich brown, quite handsome to look at, but they’d also reached 180° on an instant-read thermometer. That was not good. I pulled them out of the oven, gave them a good rest, and hoped for the best.
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I didn’t get it. The meat was dry and chewy, the skin all leathery. Alas, that’s only too common in Thanksgiving turkeys, and a perfect example of why people often dislike the traditional dinner. (The vegetables were somewhat over-roasted too. Maybe my oven is running too hot?)

Well, it was what it was, and we ate what we could of it. A hastily made pan gravy and the cranberry relish helped it a bit.
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The nice 12-year-old Morey-Saint Denis from Drouhin that we drank with it by no means hurt. One wonders how many dry turkeys have, over the years, been lubricated by a good wine.
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What helped the dinner most, actually, was its dessert – again in the great American holiday tradition. Just for the two of us I made the whole pumpkin chiffon pie that I’d intended to bring to our friends’ dinner party. It’s one of Tom’s favorite pies, and it came out exactly as it should: feather-light on the palate, moist, spicy, and only slightly sweet – a lovely ending to a slightly flawed dinner.

Let’s hope it’s an omen for what’s left of this very flawed year.
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