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Science has shown that you can make a silk purse from a sow’s ear. Sometimes kitchen arts can do that too. It worked, this week, for me.

Beloved Spouse had innocently brought home a new variety of bread to try – a large baguette-style loaf listed by our usually reliable market as Italian Bread. It looked reasonable, though it felt a bit hefty. When sliced into, it proved to be essentially commercial white bread: The dense, fine, slightly sweet crumb had to have been due to more ingredients than the flour, yeast, and salt that a proper Italian loaf uses.

loaf

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When we want white bread in our house I make the White Bread Plus recipe from Joy of Cooking, and it’s a very different animal. So this travesty was going to be useless unless I found something decent to do with it. Resourcefully (she modestly said), I did: Bread pudding.

From a few unfortunate restaurant experiences, I know it’s possible to produce a boring bread pudding, but all the ones I’ve ever made are wonderful simple desserts – easy enough for everyday use, interesting enough to serve to guests. So I set to work on this one, using only ingredients that I had on hand.

My bespoke knife man (a big bread pudding fan) cheerfully reduced the loaf of bread to cubes. It made almost six cups’ worth.

cubed

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The next thing I needed was two cups of milk. I didn’t have any fresh, so I made up some with nonfat dry milk powder, boosting its butterfat with a leftover half cup of heavy cream. I scalded that liquid, melted in half a stick of butter, stirred in ⅓ cup of sugar, poured it over the bread, and left it for 15 minutes to be absorbed.

Then I considered fruit for the filling. My fruit bowl contained several bananas, a pear, and an apple. Any of them would have been good. I chose the apple, peeled and chopped it, and added ¼ cup of raisins to it.

fruit

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When the bread was thoroughly moistened, I mixed in the fruit, along with two eggs beaten with a teaspoon of vanilla extract and a pinch of salt.

mixture

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The pudding mixture went into a heavily buttered baking dish and then into a 350° oven for about 45 minutes, until the top was lightly browned and a knife inserted into the center came out clean.

baked

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It was a delight, as always – warm and fragrant, lightly fruit-sweet, moist enough not to need a sauce (though it never objects to a ladleful of crème anglaise). Of course, there was far more than two of us could eat at a sitting, but one of the beauties of bread pudding is its resilience. It keeps well, reheats well – even freezes well, though mine rarely lasts long enough for that.

served

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Best of all, in any of its homely or elegant variations, bread pudding is a thoroughly comforting thing to eat. And given the way things have gone this fall, we all need as much comfort as we can get. Beloved Spouse and I may eat a lot of bread pudding this winter.

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Though Tom and I were away on a trip last week, we still had a Christmas dinner at home – one day on the week before the actual holiday. It was a full-fledged feast.

It started with a trial of three kinds of caviar, all osetra style: one from California, one from Israel, and one from Italy. We liked the Californian, from American transmontanus sturgeon, best. It was also the most expensive of the three, but still only a fraction of the cost of Caspian Sea caviar from actual osetra sturgeon. This led to reminiscing about the days when “real” caviar was affordable, if expensive, and when occasionally you could find some at a great price: It fell off the truck, no doubt. The Israeli caviar came in second, for both price and preference. The Italian, alas, was the least of them. (I’m putting all this on the record so I’ll remember it for next year.)

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Then we went on to an outrageous indulgence for a two-person dinner: a four-???????????????????????????????pound prime rib of beef – two beautifully trimmed and tied, juicy ribs. Call it the king of all planned-overs. I roasted it in a way entirely new to me. I had just bought myself The Cook’s Illustrated Cookbook – a hefty tome of almost 900 pages. The book is full of earnest expositions of why its recipes are best of breed. For “perfect prime rib” it calls for roasting at 200° F, a much lower temperature than I’d ever used before.

Since total slow roasting leaves an unsightly fatty exterior, the book says to brown the entire piece of meat on the stove before putting it in the oven, so that’s what I did. My biggest cast-iron skillet served well for both the browning and the roasting.

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Assuming you want your roast medium rare, the recipe calls for cooking it 30 minutes to the pound, which would have been 2 hours for mine. Since Tom and I like our beef practically still mooing, I gave it an hour and 20 minutes, plus a 25-minute rest before carving. It came out beautifully, and tasted every bit as good as it looked.

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Our vegetable accompaniments were leeks braised in broth with a dab of tomato paste and a dash of Cholula hot sauce; and a puree of Green Mountain potatoes and parsnip, gratineed with cream and an egg. Also in the photo is a 1985 Biondi Santi Brunello – a very special wine, which to our surprise still wasn’t fully ready to drink. It could have taken ten more years of aging, even after the far-from-optimum conditions of our storage. An amazing wine.

Finally, at the back of the table you can see the tiny apple tart I’d made for dessert. Perfectly lovely Christmas fare, all of it, even if it wasn’t enjoyed on December 25 – and it provided luscious leftover beef for another full meal for two, plus sandwiches.

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Scaling back a recipe that serves six to eight to a size for just two persons can be tricky. Arithmetically, it’s no problem (a pocket calculator helps) but in practice it doesn’t always work well. I’ve had fairly good luck doing this, but sometimes I’m reminded of the pitfalls. So it was this week, when Tom asked for a Tarte Tatin for dessert.

We both love this tender, caramelized, upside-down apple pastry, though I hadn’t made one in years. I could have made a full-size tart using any of several of my cookbooks, but it’s a dish that isn’t as good leftover as it is freshly made, so I decided to try creating just a tiny one.

way to cookI based my experiment on the recipe in Julia Child’s The Way to Cook, which Julia says is her fourth and, as far as she’s concerned, her definitive version of the dish. She calls for a heavy nine-inch frying pan to make a tart serving six. Dusting off my high school algebra again (A=πr2), I calculated that my little six-inch cast iron pan should be the right size for one-third of the recipe. Thus arithmetically fortified, I bravely set to work.

Preparing the apples was the first step. An easy start: One-third of six apples is two apples. I peeled, quartered, and cored them; cut the quarters in half lengthwise; and tossed them in a bowl with sugar and lemon. My apple eighths were my first mistake, as you’ll see in a moment.

Next I had to prepare a caramel syrup. I melted butter in the frying pan, blended in sugar, and stirred until the mixture turned golden brown. That worked all right, though I now think I should have let it get a little darker.

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Off heat, I had to arrange the drained apple pieces on top of the syrup in the pan. Here’s where things got tricky. There wasn’t enough room in it to make the pretty circular design of slices that’s characteristic of a tarte Tatin. I had to just squeeze in my big chunks of fruit wherever they’d fit – heaping the upper layers above the rim of the pan, as Julia said I should, assuring me that they’d sink down as they cooked.

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Well, they didn’t. The next step was to put the pan back on the stove and cook for about 20 minutes, drawing up the juices with a bulb baster and drizzling them over the apples, until they softened and the syrup thickened. My bulky apples stubbornly resisted softening, both uncovered at first, then covered. (The full glory of hindsight now told me I should’ve cut them thinner!) Furthermore, the cover I used wasn’t a tight fit, so juices kept bubbling over and spitting down into the stove.

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Eventually (more like 40 minutes than 20) I called a halt, took the pan off the burner to cool a little, and prepared to roll out a circle of dough for the pastry cover. I’d taken a slab of my leftover dough from the freezer in advance, thinking it was ordinary short-crust pastry dough. As soon as I began to work it, I realized it was actually pasta frolla: maddeningly fragile, frangible stuff. (Ever-ready hindsight now reminded me to always – ALWAYS – label everything.) True to type, the pasta frolla kept breaking apart whenever I tried to lift the sheet of dough. I finally had to roll it between sheets of plastic wrap to keep it together, and then hustle it onto the apples, patching and pasting the edges back together.  It wasn’t supposed to look like this:

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In the subsequent baking, the caramel syrup continued to ooze out around the edges of the pan. Fortunately, I was expecting that now, and I’d put a cookie sheet on an oven shelf just below the tart, to catch the drips. By the end, the pastry had crumbled some more, and I nearly despaired.

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The last instruction was to tilt the pan at that point and if the juices were still runny, to put the pan back on the stove and boil them down to a thick syrup. No way I was about to try that maneuver with my little mess of a tart! I just covered the pan with a plate, reversed the two, and lifted off the pan. To my great surprise, aside from being paler than it should have been, the tart didn’t look too bad.

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And in fact, it tasted quite good. Two of us had no trouble eating it all at a sitting. It wasn’t overly sweet – possibly because a fair amount of the caramel syrup had escaped during the cooking – but the apples were sweet enough in themselves. I don’t remember ever having this trouble with full-size tartes Tatin, and even though this time I snatched a victory of sorts from the jaws of defeat, I guess I won’t be trying a miniature again.

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Where the Caramel Went

Where the Caramel Went

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Postscript: Brooding on those caramel spillages after cleaning them up, I recalculated the math about pan sizes. By golly, I’d gotten it wrong! The area of a nine-inch frying pan is 63.6 square inches, and the area of a six-incher is 28.3 square inches. Ergo, my small one was close to one-half the size of a large one, not only one-third of it, as I somehow originally came up with. (I’m literate, not numerate.)

But here’s the weird thing: That being the case, why couldn’t my more-than-one-third-size pan hold one-third of the recipe’s worth of syrup without dribbling all over the stove and oven? Yes, bigger pans have higher sides, but only proportionately. Beats me!

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Stayman Winesaps are my favorite cooking apple. The local ones seem especially good this year. They’re not one of the prettiest varieties – a little dull looking, but crisp, tart, and juicy. Here they are in my Greenmarket.

I almost always buy too many of them, but I’ve learned how to keep apples: in a brown paper bag in the refrigerator’s crisper drawer, where they stay well for a long time. My latest batch didn’t hang around for long. I made three apple dishes on three different days this week: a main course, an appetizer, and a dessert.

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Pork Chops with Apples in Cider Sauce

Pork and apples are always a good combination. I found this recipe for Chuletas de Cerdo a la Asturiana in Penelope Casas’s The Foods and Wines of Spain. I’ve always had good results from this book, such as the two dishes I wrote about here, and this one is no exception.

It’s a very easy dish to make. Salt, flour, and brown pork chops in butter and oil; set them aside and briefly sauté sliced apples in the same fats. Lay half the apple slices in an ovenproof dish, top with the chops and the rest of the apples. Deglaze the sauté pan with a little broth and hard cider; pour that over the chops and apples. Cover and cook in a moderate oven until the chops are tender.

It was delicious. The pork’s own sweetness blended with that of the apples, and the apples absorbed some of the succulence of the pork. The little sauce was good on boiled potatoes, too. Casas suggests drinking the same cider with the dish, but we found a Beaujolais went perfectly well. There was nothing in this recipe – neither ingredient nor technique – that wouldn’t have been perfectly at home in a Norman or a Breton kitchen. Or an English or American one, for that matter: Apples speak the international language.

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Chorizo and Apples in Hard Cider Sauce

I happened on this tapa recipe for Chorizo alla Sidra while flipping through pages in the Casas book. I had cider left from the pork chop recipe, and I had chorizos in the freezer (they’d survived the post-hurricane power outage). Those are the only two ingredients other than apples, so making it was a slam-dunk.

All it took was to simmer a whole chorizo, some sliced apples, and a little cider in a covered pan for 15 minutes, adding more cider as the liquid evaporated. Then slice the chorizo and serve with the apples and sauce.

It was okay – not exceptional. The apples and cider had tamed down the spiciness of the chorizo more than we liked. The apples were good, with just a hint of flavor from the chorizo, but I’d let the liquid reduce too far. More sauce would have helped. Altogether, the dish was a bit less than the sum of its parts.

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Grandmother’s Apple Tart

The grandmother in question here is not mine. The recipe for Tarte aux Pommes Grand-Mere, which I found in the Pies & Pastries volume of the Time-Life Good Cook series, was originally printed in a cookbook called La Cuisine Lyonnaise. I have many recipes for apple tarts, from the plainest, such as the one I wrote about here, to some elaborate ones that take most of a day to achieve. This one was a little different from any that I’d made before, so I gave it a try.

I lined a pan with the recipe’s all-butter short-crust pastry dough, paved it with sliced apples, and sprinkled them with sugar. Then – this was the first unusual thing – the pan went into a 350-degree oven for 15 minutes. I’m used to baking pies and tarts at much higher temperatures. Meanwhile I prepared a small mixture of an egg, sugar, heavy cream, and kirsch. That custard filling was another thing I hadn’t used in a tart before.

I poured the mixture over the apples and returned the pan to the oven for another 20 minutes. I’d expected the custard to swell and engulf the apples, but it really didn’t. You can barely see it in the finished tart.

The finished tart was very good. The crust stayed fairly pale, but it was fully cooked, crisp and flaky, despite the low-temperature baking. Though the custard base was hardly noticeable, it moistened and flavored each bite of the tart. I might raise the quantity of custard next time I make this recipe, because we liked it quite a lot. Those Lyonnaise grandmothers knew their stuff.

The final unusual thing about this recipe was an instruction to serve the tart hot. That idea didn’t appeal to me. I’d made the tart early in the day, so at dinner time I just warmed it slightly in the oven, and it was fine.

Next time I might try raising the oven temperature a little for the second half of the cooking, to brown the pastry a bit more. More color wouldn’t hurt the apples either – it’s a rather pale tart. And finally, when an open-faced tart involves two layers of apples, I must remember to save enough of the best-shaped slices for an attractive pinwheel arrangement on the top!

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Christmas dinner needs an important dish for a centerpiece. This year Tom and I started cookbook research and planning for the meal weeks in advance. We finally chose an elaborate recipe that we’d never made before from Raymond Oliver’s La Cuisine: Pintadeau farci Jean Cocteau, stuffed guinea hen served with boudins blancs, boudins noirs, and sautéed apples.

What did Jean Cocteau have to do with the dish, you ask? We wondered too. It isn’t explained in La Cuisine, but I found out that, five years before it was published, Oliver had produced a very small, elegant printing of another book called Recettes pour un ami, with a preface and many illustrations by Cocteau, for whom three of the dishes were named. That book is a collector’s item now, listed for 375 pounds sterling when last available, so I’m never likely to see it.

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La Cuisine’s photo of the guinea hen looked good; all the ingredients were interesting, and the instructions seemed quite plausible when we read through the recipe. It wasn’t until we actually began to make the dish that we realized how bizarre it was. (I must mention that this was a cooperative cooking adventure; Tom and I prepared the whole dinner together.)

To start with, the recipe’s proportions were Gargantuan. To serve two persons, it called for a two-pound guinea hen, four boudins blanc and four boudins noir (that’s a good pound of sausages per person), eight fried croûtons the size of the sausages, and four apples. I’d like to have seen Cocteau and his ami Oliver eating all that!

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We had a three-pound bird, which we knew would be ample for our four diners in the context of the rest of our menu. Ditto one each of the apples and black and white sausages. In a fit of abstemiousness, we skipped the croûtons.

The stuffing mixture was bread, hard-boiled egg, raw egg, the hen’s giblets, nutmeg, cinnamon, tarragon, chives, and chervil. We made the amount given for a two-pound guinea hen, and it was way too much even for our larger bird. I had to squeeze some of it into the neck cavity and sew it up tightly with a darning needle and thread.

The bird was to be wrapped in pork fat and casserole-roasted on top of the stove, with white wine and a mirepoix of carrots, onions, and garlic. Gargantua struck again here: You were to chop three whole carrots and three whole onions for the mirepoix. Even allowing that vegetables in France 40 years ago were probably smaller than ours are now, that still would’ve been a vast amount. And the whole cup of wine called for would’ve made a very acid gravy. So again we made adjustments.

Now, continuing the impractical instructions (don’t worry; this story has a happy ending): The whole guinea hen, once browned, was supposed to be done in 25 minutes. Have you ever tried to brown a bird that’s wrapped in pork fat? It’s simply not possible. And our larger bird took 45 minutes to tenderize. Then you were supposed to reduce the pan juices and just pour them over the bird for serving. Our mirepoix vegetables, even though chopped fine, and even after the longer cooking time, were still in recognizable bits, so the sauce would have been pretty ugly. We pureed it.

Here’s the dish as we brought it to the table:

Note how different it looks from the mahogany-brown bird in the book’s photo, above. Note too how pure white the book’s boudins blancs are, totally unmarked by sauteeing in butter, and the absence of apples or gravy in that photo. One more fraud perpetrated by the food stylists!

The good news is that the dish was really excellent. Odd as the combination was, the bird, the blood sausages, the mild sausages, the apples, and the gravy all came together felicitously. With them we drank a 2005 Moillard Beaune Grèves Premier Cru, and happy we were.

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A few more words about Cocteau and food. In addition to his serious writings, he did a jesting piece called Petit lettre à la dérive, which creates a litany of the dinner-table imperatives that parents deliver to their children:

Mange ta soupe. Tiens-toi droit. Mange lentement. Ne mange pas si vite. Bois en mangeant. Coupe ta viande en petits morceaux. Tu ne fais que tordre et avaler. Ne joue pas avec ton couteau. Ce n’est pas comme ça qu’on tient sa fourchette. On ne chante pas à table. Vide ton assiette. Ne te balance pas sur ta chaise. Finis ton pain. Pousse ton pain. Mâche. Ne parle pas la bouche pleine. Ne mets pas tes coudes sur la table. Ramasse ta serviette. Ne fais pas de bruit en mangeant. Tu sortiras de table quand on aura fini. Essuie ta bouche avant de m’embrasser.

Cette petite liste réveille une foule de souvenirs, ceux de l’enfance. C’est très longtemps après qu’on arrive à comprendre qu’un dîner peut être un véritable chef-d’oeuvre.

As a New Year’s wish, therefore, may we all, in 2012, eat our soup, sit up straight, not play with our knife, wipe our mouth before kissing anyone, and enjoy many dinners that are veritable chefs d’oeuvre!

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This week I felt like going back to my oldest cookbooks to see what they could still teach me.  My very oldest was my mother’s – America’s Cook Book, published in 1937. She received it as a wedding present in 1938 from my father’s grandparents. After about 50 years of hard use, it was in poor condition, so I had it rebound for her in plain buckram. The picture below is of the book’s flyleaf, with an inscription in verse in my great-grandfather’s hand.

Compiled by the Home Institute of the old New York Herald Tribune, the book is an encyclopedic cultural artifact. Its 1,000 pages cover every category of foodstuffs, plus sections on meal planning, cookery methods, kitchen equipment, menu making, table setting, herb gardens, buying foods, calorie and vitamin information, wine and spirits – even a glossary of foreign culinary terms (mostly French).

Paging through it this time, I was struck by a recipe for Pecan Orange Muffins. I make muffins fairly often, and I pretty much know how to do it. The usual procedure is to sift together the dry ingredients, combine the wet ones, dump the former into the latter, and mix quickly until the batter is not quite smooth. If you overmix, bad things happen to the texture of the baked muffins. But this recipe’s technique flew in the face of all that.

It had me creaming sugar and shortening, beating in egg yolks, adding the dry ingredients alternately with milk and orange juice, stirring in chopped nuts, and finally folding in stiffly beaten egg whites. That sounds more like making a cake, and indeed my muffins came out of the oven looking like cupcakes – risen well enough, but pretty flat on top. They were also quite small: Each one weighed less than two ounces, whereas the ones that stores sell nowadays are giants by comparison. But when I cut into one of mine, it had exactly the right muffiny texture and a lovely flavor.

However, I must say the preparation was highly labor-intensive. It took me three measuring cups, four small bowls, two large bowls, a hand mixmaster, an orange juicer, an orange-peel grater, and any number of stirring and measuring spoons. Filled half the dishwasher with it all, by the time I was through. I imagine that the 1937 lady of the house was supposed to have a kitchen slavey, who’d be out of bed by 5 a.m. in order to have fresh hot muffins on the breakfast table when the family came downstairs, and then would wash dishes while the family ate. So, good as these muffins are, I don’t think I’ll be adding the recipe to my repertoire.

Continuing my old-cookbooks resolve, I next pulled down Joy of Cooking – the oldest of my own cookbooks. I acquired my 1964 edition when I went off to graduate school. I used it nearly to death in the ensuing years and had to have it rebound too. The bookbinder saved a bit of the original cover for me, as the photo below shows.

I still use Joy for many things, considering Irma Rombauer a sort of kindly culinary godmother. This day I was thinking about jam. I wanted something interesting to put on toast in the morning (after the muffins were gone). We’d used up all the strawberry and pineapple jams I’d made last June. In my neighborhood, no stores carry pectin in the wintertime, so that limited the fruits I could work with. Aha: Apple Butter! Apples have plenty of their own pectin and are always available.

I’d never made this old-fashioned substance, but it turns out to be easy and quick. Cook cut-up apples (I chose Fujis) in water and vinegar until soft. Strain them and mix in sugar, cinnamon, cloves and allspice. Cook again, stirring, “until the mixture sheets from a spoon.” It does, too – very handily!

On first tasting my apple butter, I wondered if I’d used a bit too much clove, but I’ll wait and see if the flavor mellows over time. Oh, by the way, the best toast in the world can be made from Irma’s recipe for White Bread Plus, the nec plus ultra of sandwich breads.

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