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Ischler Törtchen

In December, the first sign of approaching Christmas at our house, well before the wreath goes up on the front door, is the steady buildup of holiday cookie tins.
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I start my cookie baking early, making two indispensables (Toll House and peanut butter), a selection of other favorites, and usually at least one new or uncommon variety. This year I added kourambiedes, reginas, and – for the uncommon one – Ischler törtchen. These delectable tartlets look like miniature Linzer tortes. I used to make them many years ago, from a recipe in The Cooking of Vienna’s Empire volume of the Time Life Foods of the World series. But they’d slipped out of my repertoire. Time to reinstate them!
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Back in the day, I remember thinking it was a fairly complex recipe to make, but now that I’m an old hand at cookie baking, it seems quite easy. Here’s how it goes:

Cream butter and sugar; add ground almonds, flour, and cinnamon; mix until a dough forms.
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Roll the chilled dough thin and cut rounds, adding a small central hole to half of them. (Not having a tiny cookie cutter for the central hole, I used the small end of a pastry bag tip.)
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Bake in a moderate oven until lightly browned.
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Spread each solid round with jam (traditionally raspberry, but I had some black fig jam from Sicily that I wanted to try) and top it with one of the pierced rounds.
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Line them up so confectioner’s sugar can be shaked generously over them.
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Delectable they certainly were. The black fig jam was fine, though I have to say the classic raspberry filling is indeed the ideal flavor match for the almonds. These tartlets don’t keep as well as my regular Christmas cookie varieties, so we’ll have to eat them fairly quickly. Not a hardship!

Of course, neither do we want to ignore those other Christmas cookies, all so very good in their own ways. Santa always seems to like them too.
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Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good bite!

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Lobster Quenelles

At a mid-autumn dinner at Manhatta, Danny Meyer’s newest New York City restaurant, I had a luscious lobster quenelle – the first I’d ever tasted. Its rich flavors stayed on my mind’s palate for weeks afterward. I just had to try making it at home.

Now, quenelles are not in my skill set. I’d only once made fish quenelles, many years ago, when I acquired my first food processor (the device that took the fantastically complex work out of making them), and all I recall now is that it still seemed like too fussy a dish to pursue. But quenelles with lobster – that’s surely worth another effort! Off to the fish market I went and picked up a good-looking pair of lobster tails.
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The first volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking devotes six pages to quenelles, and Julia Child is very encouraging about them. She says they now “take literally minutes and have stepped out of the never-never-land of ultra fancy food into the everyday life of the average home cook.”

Julia, I adore you, but if you were still here among us, I’d tell you that that is an exaggeration.

The first step in the master recipe is to make a pâte à choux. No problem there: I’ve made puff paste for both savory (gougères) and sweet (profiteroles) dishes. I melted butter, salt, pepper, and nutmeg in boiling water; dumped in flour and beat ferociously; off heat, beat in an egg and an extra egg white; then set the entire pot in a bowl of ice water to thoroughly chill the paste.
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Next was to prepare the quenelle mixture. My bespoke knife man obligingly cracked open the lobster tails, extracted the meat, and cut it into one-inch chunks.
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The chilled lobster meat, the choux paste, and some heavy cream went into the food processor.
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If the mixture looked stiff after giving it a very thorough whirling, Julia said to blend in more cream – as much as it would take, which would keep the finished quenelles’ texture light and delicate. Well, it did look pretty stiff . . .
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. . . but I was warned against using too much cream, because the mixture had to be able to hold its shape on a spoon. Mercifully, Julia set up a test for that: Scoop out a bit of the paste, drop it into simmering water, poach it, and taste.
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Next instruction: “Process in more cream if you think it can be absorbed – but better too little than too much!” Worry worry worry. It took three more additions of cream and three more poachings to keep the test pieces from feeling rubbery in the mouth. (As you may have noticed, those Julian minutes were adding up.)

Finally ready to form and poach the quenelles, I filled a roasting pan with three inches of water and brought it to a simmer. Now the idea was to work rapidly, using two wet dessert spoons, to shape the batter into smooth ovals and drop them into the water. Here’s how that process worked for me.
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Pitiful! The batter wouldn’t smooth, it stuck to the wet spoons, and by the time the pieces hit the water, they had knobs and pimples all over. But after about 25 minutes they all duly came to the surface of the water, floated around, allowed themselves to be turned over a few times, and eventually swelled reasonably well.
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I must say it’s hard to understand how my half recipe’s worth of batter, which was supposed to make about 8 quenelles, turned out to make 24. I intended them to be a main course for 3 people, and it was clear we’d never be able to eat that many at a sitting. I selected the 18 least misshapen little lumps, set them in a dish, and left it covered in the refrigerator overnight. (Packaged up the rest separately.)
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Next day came the sauce making. The chopped up lobster shells went into a broth made from a fish bouillon cube and simmered together lengthily to make a concentrated stock. I cooked butter and flour together, beat in equal parts of boiling stock, milk, and white wine to make a very thick sauce, and thinned it out somewhat with heavy cream (cream and butter being the universal solvents of classic French cuisine).
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Finally came the assembly: Spread a thin layer of sauce in a buttered gratin dish, arrange the quenelles in it, pour the rest of the sauce over them, sprinkle on grated gruyere, and add – what else? – dots of butter. At dinner time the dish baked for 15 minutes in a very hot oven.
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It came out looking a bit messy but with an enticing seafood aroma. We could tell the quenelles were going to be very rich, so I put only three on each plate to start.
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They were marvelous! Light, fluffy, melting in the mouth, tasting intensely of lobster, with the sauce a perfect companion. So rich that none of us could eat more than three.

Now I’ve got some terrific leftovers to look forward to. And I’m very glad to have actually achieved this delicious dish. It was well worth all the time and effort.

But, dear Julia: mere minutes? everyday life? average cook? I don’t think so.

With the annual elaborate eating season well under way, Tom and I are trying to exercise restraint by making some very humble dinners, to balance out the extravaganzas. One of our standbys is a homely plate of franks and beans. Fussbudgets as we are, however, it can’t be just any old franks or any beans. Humble doesn’t have to be boring.

We buy our frankfurters from Julian Baczynsky’s butcher store, which has been a fixture in the East Village’s Ukrainian neighborhood for 48 years.
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The big homemade veal hot dogs come in two sizes: extremely long and slender or moderately long and exceedingly fat. These are the ne plus ultra of hot dogs, tasting of their meat and gentle spices and not simply of salt, as so many commercial dogs do.
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Only the fat ones this day

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To cook either kind, we just drop them into boiling water and simmer until they’re heated through. Of course, they can also be grilled or broiled, but they’re so tasty that we find the simplest handling is best.

Selection of the beans can be a bit more variable. We do sometimes stoop to canned ones, which Tom spices up in his best alchemical style. But mainly we like to use dried beans, heirloom varieties that we buy online from Rancho Gordo and cook fairly plainly.

For this dinner I went a little fancier with the beans because of a recent post on Cooking from Books, a blog that we follow. Titled “Cheesy Bean and Tomato Bake,” it appealed to us both immediately. Author Roland Marandino often puts good twists on the recipes he writes about, and his doing so with this one encouraged me to take a little liberty with his version too.

So, where Roland made his dish with canned cannellini beans and chickpeas, I used dried cranberry beans, letting them soak overnight in cold water, where they plumped up beautifully.
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Next day I sauteed a mince of carrot, onion, and celery, stirred in the beans and their soaking water, and simmered them until they were tender – only about an hour, because Rancho Gordo’s beans are always the newest crop. Then I could pick up the instructions from Roland’s post.

I softened thinly sliced garlic cloves in olive oil; added tomato paste and sauteed that for a few minutes in an ovenproof baking dish;
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then stirred in the beans, salt, pepper, and a little of their reserved soaking water.
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I sprinkled coarsely grated mozzarella over the beans and put the dish in a 475° oven for 15 minutes, until the mozzarella melted.
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Roland suggests a final browning of the cheese under the broiler, but my beans were dryer than his, so I didn’t want to chance that. I served them just with the soft cheese topping.
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The beans were full of good flavor, and they got along just fine with the excellent franks and with a modest red wine: a very young Aglianico from Caparone (one of the few California winemakers Tom really likes). A pleasant, unpretentious little dinner.

Back in the 1950s, turkey Tetrazzini was the height of fashionable cuisine, the stereotypical darling of “ladies who lunch.” Sort of a rich man’s chicken à la king, the dish came to mind the other day as I contemplated the generous pile of excellent roasted turkey meat our Thanksgiving hostess had sent us home with.

Browsing my cookbooks and the Internet, I quickly learned there are any number of recipes that call themselves turkey Tetrazzini, none apparently with any greater likelihood of being the one that Escoffier is said to have created and named for the renowned opera singer Luisa Tetrazzini – if indeed there’s any truth at all to that legend. I chose a recipe I found online, from a book called Almost Italian, by Skip Lombardi and Holly Chase.
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I was going to photograph the preparation process as usual, but I was pressed for time that evening and had a lot of steps to take in rapid succession. Also, I wanted a two-person version and had to cut back quantities given for 6 to 8 servings. Being a barely numerate person, I struggle to calculate things like the number of teaspoons there must be in one-third of a quarter of a cup. So the only image I have to show you is my finished dish.
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To make it, I started by cooking short rotini pasta until not quite done. Meanwhile, I cut the turkey into small chunks and thinly sliced several white mushrooms. I sauteed the mushrooms in butter. I made a sort of combination bechamel-velouté sauce with flour, butter, milk, chicken bouillon (from a cube), heavy cream, nutmeg, salt, and pepper.

I should mention that, given the great variability in the Tetrazzini recipes I’d seen, I felt free to change some of the ingredient quantities given in my source. I used less pasta, more mushrooms, and more peas.

In a large bowl I mixed turkey, pasta, mushrooms, sauce, defrosted green peas, and grated parmigiano. Spread it all in a buttered gratin dish, sprinkled on a mix of breadcrumbs and more parmigiano, dotted the top with butter, and baked it in a moderate oven for 40 minutes.

It came out looking nicely golden. How did it taste? Well, it was OK. All those pleasant, mild ingredients coexisted peacefully enough, but there was nothing to give the dish any strong character. I don’t fault the recipe: Most of the other versions I saw would have been essentially the same. I suspect that’s just what unadventurous American taste in the ‘50s liked about turkey Tetrazzini: no palatal challenges.

Just another piece of evidence that you can’t go home again!

On the trip to Malta that I wrote about last week, we spent one day on Gozo, the country’s second largest island. More rural than the eponymous main island, Gozo has its own full share of marvels, from megalithic to medieval, as well as lovely rolling hills and excellent traditional food. A highlight of the day for Tom and me was lunch made by the noted Gozo chef George Borg – a lunch made not just for us but partly by us.

This was a fun occasion as well as a delicious one. George is a delightful man and a very talented chef, passionate about Maltese culinary traditions, as well as about wine. When we arrived at his studio kitchen, he had work stations and aprons set out for us; and he started us right off at helping to prepare the antipasto course: his own Gozo-style ftira.
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Now, the ftira we had in Valletta, as I showed last week, was on a thick base of bread, hence fairly heavy for an antipasto. George’s version lightens it by using flaky butter pastry. We were intrigued. The topping we made that day was potatoes, onions, tomatoes, olives, capers, garlic, and anchovies. I thinly sliced potatoes, Tom halved grape tomatoes, and George did the rest.

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While the ftira was baking, we moved on to preparing the next course, which was to be stuffed baked pasta shells. For the filling I mashed several little cheeselets – Malta’s ubiquitous fresh sheep cheese – with grated pecorino, chopped parsley, and black pepper.

Then, in the the most unusual way of treating pasta I’ve ever encountered, George gave Tom and me each a pastry tube filled with the cheese mixture and a pile of pasta shells to be filled with it – raw shells.

 

Once stuffed, the shells went into gratin dishes. George poured on milk to come half way up the pasta, sprinkled the dishes generously with grated pecorino, and put them in the oven to bake with the ftira.

 

Next, George brought out the fish that was to be our main course: fillets of lampuki. This autumn-season specialty is Malta’s favorite fish. Elsewhere, it’s called dorado, dolphin fish, or mahi mahi. But the ones caught here are nothing like the huge, bull-headed, pastel-hued creatures we in the US know as mahi mahi. The lampuki we saw in Malta’s fish markets were small, slender, silvery, white-fleshed fish, with no scales.

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The fillets George cut up were no more than a foot long. He said this was the end of the lampukis’ season, and that was as big as they ever got. To give us an authentic Gozo experience, he cooked them in one of the favorite local ways: just floured, shallow-fried, and served with a tomato sauce.

George’s sauce was based on his own sundried purée of tomatoes. (That is, not a purée of sundried tomatoes but a fresh tomato sauce that he’d made, spread out on trays, and left to thicken in the sunshine – much the way it’s done in Sicily.) He stirred salt, sugar, and capers into the purée, then softened chopped garlic in olive oil in a skillet, added the seasoned puree and a good slosh of water, and set it on the stove to simmer.

 

At last we sat to lunch. Our host had opened two local wines for us to choose from: a Vermentino and a Sangiovese. Naturally we tried both! They were very good. Tom has a blog post on Maltese wines that says more about these two.

 

The ftira was delicious – and quite light, thanks to the crisp, buttery flaky crust. It was hard to resist gobbling it all down, but we knew how much more there was to come.

 

Next came the baked stuffed pasta. The parts of the shells that had been in the milk were soft and fully cooked, while their top edges were firm, brown and crunchy. The milk itself had thickened into a lightly cheese-flavored cream. The mix of textures was a bit disconcerting to us – not the way we’re used to dealing with pasta. It tasted fine, but we still haven’t gotten past our sense of its oddness.

 

 

The lampuki was lovely in its simplicity – quite delicate but very flavorful – and the rich tomato sauce made an ideal complement. We relished every bite of the sweet, firm flesh, whose richness was nicely counterpointed by the acidity and brightness of the sauce.

 

George was eager to give us dessert, but after all those good dishes we couldn’t eat another thing. Tiny cups of espresso and glasses of an excellent grappa made a perfect conclusion to this wonderful meal. As we departed, with compliments on all sides, George gave us a copy of one of his cookbooks. I’m very much looking forward to trying some of his recipes!

Dining in Malta

I’m just back from a vacation that included four days of exploring Malta. The Maltese islands – mere dots in the Mediterranean between Sicily and Africa – are truly fascinating. Cliffs, caves, and grottoes, Baroque palaces, medieval fortresses, 5,000-year-old megalithic temples, some the oldest stone structures in the world; and on top of all that, interesting, unusual food.

For example, here Tom and I are having a midmorning snack of pastizzi, a popular Maltese pastry resembling Neapolitan sfogliatelle but with savory fillings, usually fresh ricotta or (a relic of British rule?) mushy peas.

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Not surprisingly in an island culture, fish of all kinds were abundant and delicious. The seafood we had at two restaurants, Palazzo Preca in Valletta and Tartarun in Marsaxlokk, was all exceptionally fresh and fine.

We tried both restaurants’ versions of aljotta, Malta’s signature fish soup. Often described (unfairly, in our opinion) as an adaptation of bouillabaisse, this is a rich, dense fish broth harboring small pieces of several kinds of fish, served with fresh lemon for squeezing and crusty bread for dunking.

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Another appetizer was described on its menu as “local octopus, lemon confit, lardo, 10YO condimento, crispy quinoa, olive & mint.” (Condimento, I learned, is a prestigious kind of balsamic vinegar, this one being 10 years old.) The combination was lovely to look at and luscious to eat.

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Our main courses of seafood were equally good:

An enormous mixed fry of various fishes, squid, shrimp, and octopus

Giant prawns sautéed in garlic, white wine, and tomato, served on a bed of rice

A sauté of mussels and four kinds of clams: razor, surf, vongole veraci, and praires

The best, freshest, sweetest, grilled squid Tom has eaten in a lifetime of consuming squid at every opportunity

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We also explored non-seafood dishes, at both a lunch and a dinner at a Valletta restaurant called Nenu the Artisan Baker. It serves only traditional Maltese foods, with locally produced ingredients. Our lunch was two kinds of ftira, the Maltese equivalent of pizza. It consists of a fairly thick base of bread dough with various toppings, baked in a wood oven.

This one is called karmni s-sultana: potatoes, tomatoes, anchovies, onions, caper berries, olives, mint, and fennel seeds.

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And this one is ta’ Nenu: sundried tomatoes, black olives, peppered Maltese goat cheese, onions, Maltese sausages, capers, and thyme.

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These were hefty items, which we couldn’t possibly finish, much less go on to eat anything else for that lunch. The rest of the menu was so interesting, we decided to come back that evening for dinner. We quickly discovered that everything Nenu serves is hefty. Our appetizers would easily have done for main courses.

Here’s fwied tal-fenek: rabbit liver in a sauce of onions, garlic, prunes, anisette, and cream.

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And zalzett malti: Maltese sausage in a spicy tomato sauce with peas.

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Our affable waiter jokingly counseled us not to dip too much of the good crusty bread – the Maltese are rightly proud of their bread – in the sauces, because of the dishes yet to come. And right he was.

Here’s Tom’s kirxa, a curried tripe stew, which was served with pan-fried potatoes and garlic bread. It had several kinds of tripe, not just honeycomb, and a delicious but unusual set of curry spices that we couldn’t identify.

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And here’s my fenek moqli, described as rabbit marinated in garlic and red wine, fried in olive oil, and served in its own juices. (I’d have called it braised, though I later learned that “fried” in Malta can mean either deep-fried or sauteed.) It came with roasted potatoes and steamed vegetables.

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Our waiter delicately informed me that Maltese people eat rabbit with their fingers, because of the many small bones to be navigated around. I believe I became an honorary Maltese citizen that evening, because I ate my rabbit with my fingers too.

With that gargantuan repast, I’ll conclude this post. We had one more, very special, meal in Malta, which deserves a separate post of its own.

Alsace Onion Tart

One of my most reliable first courses for a company dinner is an onion tart in the manner of Alsace. (I won’t call it Alsatian – that’s a breed of dog.) I’ve made it successfully for many years: It’s always delicious and guests always enjoy it. Originally I must have based it on a recipe from somewhere, but now it’s purely mine. I have it written out for five different sizes: 10-inch, 9-inch, 8-inch, and 6-inch round pans, plus 4-inch individual tartlets.

When I have extra pastry dough in the freezer, I sometimes make one just for Beloved Spouse and myself. Though we can’t finish it all at one sitting, it never stays around long enough to lose its charm. Most recently I made us an 8-inch version.

To start, I ran a pound’s worth of Spanish onions through the two-millimeter blade of my food processor. In a large sauté pan in which I’d melted a stick of butter and a tablespoon of olive oil, the onions cooked very gently for 20 minutes, until they were very soft but not at all browned – somewhat like the start of a French onion soup.

 

 

I sprinkled two teaspoons of flour over the onions, stirred them around, and cooked for another minute, then took the pan off the heat and let the onions cool a bit while I shaped the pastry shell. I like to use a pâte brisée for this tart, but any savory pastry will do. For company I usually make a raised decorative rim of pastry, but in this case I had just enough pre-made pastry for a plain shell.

 

 

For the filling I beat 2 jumbo eggs together in a bowl with 2/3 cup each of milk and heavy cream (for company it’s sometimes crème fraiche), plus salt, pepper, and freshly grated nutmeg. I spread the onions and their residual butter in the pastry shell and poured the filling mixture over them.

 

 

The tarts – of any size – bake for 30 to 40 minutes in a 350° oven, until they’re puffed and lightly golden on top.

 

 

They can be served hot, warm, or at room temperature. For company dinners I usually bake the tart in advance and reheat it just a little as serving time approaches.

 

 

Simple as it is, this is a lovely tart – attractive in its presentation, appetizingly light on the tongue but rich, pure, and naturally sweet from both the custard and the onions. It’s delicate because there’s no bacon or cheese, as are used in many other onion tart recipes, to make the filling heavy. This is a dish that fits well into menus for all seasons and just about any US or western European cuisine. It loves a good white wine – not necessarily from Alsace, but one from there never hurts.