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Posts Tagged ‘cream’

When it comes to pasta, I’m a traditionalist. I don’t approve of restaurant chefs who need to vaunt their “creativity” with dishes whose ingredients have never before encountered each other on a plate. There’s a reason some pasta combinations are classics: they work! But even a cranky person like me can occasionally appreciate something new.

This time it came about because Tom noticed that a farm stand at our Greenmarket was featuring boxes of very fresh, small king oyster mushrooms.

 

 

He couldn’t resist them. We’d had ordinary oyster mushrooms before, but not this different variety, which have been available locally only in much larger, stemmier sizes. I looked them up in Elizabeth Schneider’s magisterial Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini to see if they needed any special handling. The answer was yes: moist cooking to tenderize the very dense flesh.

Then I needed a recipe to make them with, so I did an Internet search for recipes using oyster mushrooms. The description of this one attracted me: “Oyster mushrooms are poached in butter and cream and tossed with pasta, Parmesan cheese and green onions.” Obviously, that’s not a classic Italian pasta preparation, but there was a reason I decided to try it: I happened to have a lot of scallions in the refrigerator.

 

 

My faithful knife man cut the mushrooms into small pieces, which I was to sauté for six minutes in butter, adding parsley, salt, and pepper for the last minute. Apparently if they had been the common oyster mushroom, as in the recipe, they’d have been tender by that point, but these sturdier ones weren’t yet.

 

 

When I poured on the recipe’s amount of heavy cream, I could see that it wasn’t going to be enough liquid for poaching, so I took it on myself to add a little broth.

 

 

Next I was to cook the mixture “at a gentle boil” for about five minutes, until the sauce thickened slightly. I was concerned that doing so might dry up the sauce and toughen the mushrooms, so instead I covered the pan and simmered it until the mushrooms were tender. The sauce didn’t thicken much, but I didn’t consider that a problem.

I set the mushroom pan aside while I cooked the pasta – linguine, as recommended – and chopped up two of my many scallions. I finished the dish right in the pan of sauce, tossing in the drained pasta, the scallions, and a few tablespoons of grated parmigiano.

 

 

I really hadn’t been expecting much, especially with the scallions going in raw at the end like that, but to our great pleasure everything came together extremely well. The linguine absorbed a good amount of the sauce, leaving the dish just moist enough. The mushrooms were delicious – the caps tasting noticeably different from and even better than the stems. The scallions also made a real contribution to the harmony of flavors, aromas, and textures.

I still wouldn’t call this an Italian dish, but it certainly was a good one. Guess I have to admit that the “classics” don’t have an exclusive lock on excellent pasta combinations.

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Culinary serendipity takes many forms, not the least of which is sparking ideas for using small amounts of leftovers. On a recent day, my refrigerator and freezer produced a 7-ounce raw filet of John Dory, 3 ounces of raw shrimp, and 4 ounces of mushrooms.

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With an open container of heavy cream also available, inspiration for dinner was easy: something classically French. Julia Child to the rescue, with her poached fish recipes in the first volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. From the book’s five major recipes, five variations, and five suggested shellfish garnitures, I chose almost the simplest, Filets de Poisson Bercy aux Champignons.

Scaling down the recipe to serve two instead of six required some adjustments. I also took a few shortcuts for further simplicity, hoping that Julia wouldn’t disapprove. For example, the shrimp for the garnish were to be first boiled for five minutes in a stock made from wine, water, onion, carrot, celery, parsley, bay leaf, thyme, tarragon, and peppercorns; then tossed in a pan with butter, seasonings, and wine.

I couldn’t see doing all that for my eight little shrimp. I just boiled them for two minutes in salted water, then sauteed them briefly in butter with minced shallots and thyme. I sliced the mushrooms and also sauteed them in butter for a few minutes.

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The fish filet was to be poached in a 350° oven. I strewed minced shallots in a shallow baking dish; laid in the fish filet topped with salt, pepper, and more shallots; poured in enough wine and water to cover the filet; and dotted butter over all.

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Now I was supposed to bring the dish to a simmer on top of the stove before covering it with a sheet of buttered wax paper and putting it in the oven. But I couldn’t: my only baking dish small enough not to surround the filet with too much liquid couldn’t take a direct flame. So the poaching took quite a bit longer than the recipe expected. I worried a bit, but gentle cooking rarely harms a fish, and eventually a fork could pierce the flesh easily, which meant the fish was done.

At that point I realized I had another problem. The poaching instructions that I’d followed had been in a separate master recipe, which didn’t have mushrooms. When I returned to my Bercy recipe, I saw that I ought to have included the mushrooms in the poaching. Oops! Oh, well – it was a pity that my mushrooms couldn’t exchange flavors with the poaching liquid, but they’d just have to join the dish later.

I gently removed the fish to a plate, poured its liquid into a small pot, and boiled it down to about half a cup’s worth. I stirred in a flour-and-butter paste and then heavy cream. Brought the sauce to a boil, seasoned it with salt, pepper, and lemon juice, and folded in the shrimps and mushrooms.

Back into its baking dish went the fish filet, and all the sauce and garnishes over and around it. The recipe also called for more dots of butter, but since the dish had already received almost a stick of butter and half a cup of cream (!), I decided to skip that.
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All this was done in the afternoon. In the evening I sprinkled grated parmigiano (instead of gruyere) over the fish in its sauce and reheated the dish under the broiler. Again, because I couldn’t first reheat it on top of the stove, it took a longer time in the broiler – about 10 minutes to warm it through. It hadn’t browned as much as it should, but I was afraid to overcook the fish, so I took it out and served it.
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It was wonderful – even after my shortcuts and alterations. The John Dory was excellent, as always. The mushrooms had – amazingly, given their short time in the sauce – absorbed all the goodness of fish, shrimp, and cream. The sauce itself was silk and velvet on the tongue, and it tasted like the sweet-salt soul of the sea.

Being something of a partisan of Italian cooking approaches, I hardly ever make classic French dishes any more, but this one reminded me of what I’d been missing. Maybe it’s time to revisit them occasionally.
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Incidentally, Beloved Spouse poured a relatively simple white Burgundy with this dish – a Côte de Nuits Villages – and the combination was delightful.

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A Fabulous Hazelnut Torte

For Thanksgiving last week I baked my traditional contributions to the feast hosted each year by our friends Michele and Charles: a dessert and a bread. The dessert this time was a hazelnut torte, and the bread a focaccia. I’ve written about my focaccia before, so today I want to talk about the torte, which is a paragon of simplicity and flavor.

torte iced 2

Now, don’t laugh at its appearance:  I’m hopeless at cake decoration, and I had a lot of luscious icing that I couldn’t bear not to use. Those wobbly rosettes were all I was capable of. Gorgeous it wasn’t, but it was very, very good.

This easy, delicious recipe was given to me by my Italian friend Maria over 30 years ago. It was her adaptation of a recipe from a British magazine, which she’d written up for herself in Italian. My copy, a yellowed sheet of paper, never translated but now heavily annotated by me, has had an honored place in my recipe binder ever since.

The only thing slightly labor-intensive about it is shelling and toasting the hazelnuts (if you don’t have a ready-prepared supply on hand, as I do). Even that isn’t so bad, because you don’t have to rub off the nuts’ brown inner skin, which is a maddening task. Eight minutes in a 350° oven is all it takes, if you need to.

To make the cake, I energetically whisked together 2 jumbo eggs and ⅜ cup of sugar; added 1 tablespoon of flour, 1¼ teaspoon of baking powder, and 1 cup of ground hazelnuts; transferred the batter to a buttered and floured 8-inch pan, and baked it at 350° for 20 minutes.

torte baked

This is a delightful cake just as is, or with a dollop of whipped cream. For home consumption, I usually stop right there. It tastes and feels light on the palate, nut-sweet rather than sugar-sweet. For Thanksgiving, I wanted something dressier, so I went on to make Maria’s recipe for the icing, which is also amazingly easy.

I stirred 2 tablespoons of unsweetened cocoa powder, 2½ tablespoons of powdered sugar, and a few drops of vanilla extract into a cup of heavy cream. Whipped on high speed in my heavy-duty mixer, the combination turned into a luscious buttercream icing in less than a minute. It too wasn’t sugar-sweet or heavy – a gentle mocha kiss is more like it.

I know that, strictly speaking, a torte should have more than one layer. The full written recipe, which serves 12, calls for 2 cakes, to be sliced in half horizontally and assembled with 3 internal layers of icing. With only 6 of us dining on Thanksgiving, I made just the single cake. If I’d had a slightly smaller pan, the cake would have been thicker and I could have halved it. But with a cake only an inch high, it was too risky to attempt. Nobody at the festive table seemed to mind the absence of internal icing: Maybe the rosettes made up for it.

torte served

The torte went beautifully with the wine-poached pears that were the other dessert of the day.

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I don’t often make (or eat) desserts. It’s partly because I know from experience I have no talent for making them, partly because it’s the easiest part of a meal for me to forgo. For my dinner parties, I usually rely on a few tried-and-true recipes like simple fruit tarts. But once in a while I feel adventurous, and this time I went exploring in Baking with Julia. Published in 1996, it was based on Child’s Master Chefs television series.

It’s a big handsome book, and many of its recipes are too ambitious for me. However, I’d had one solid success with it in the past – beautiful buttermilk scones – so I took courage and looked for a not-too-elaborate dessert. (An additional incentive was that, in writing up my results, I’d be able to tell my very own Julia Child story; see the end of this post.)

Hazelnut Baby Loaves looked like something in my league. I hasten to say these are not made from, with, or for actual babies. I’d describe them as the world’s lushest hazelnut-flavored pound cake, baked in individual loaves and served with the world’s richest cream topping.

Pound cake is something I’m comfortable with. No separating of eggs, no elaborate fillings or frostings. You just cream butter and sugar, beat in eggs, add dry ingredients (flour, baking powder, salt) alternately with liquid (milk, other flavorings), transfer the batter to a loaf pan and bake it. That was the technique for these little loaves, all right, but they had some special twists.

The dry ingredients for this recipe included ground hazelnuts. I happened to have some excellent ones from Italy, which was an attraction in the first place. Rather than milk, the recipe called for a cup of crème fraiche and a little almond extract. You had to gently fold the dry and wet ingredients into the butter-sugar-egg base, rather than beating them in. The baby loaves were supposed to be baked in 8 tiny pans, 4 by 2 by 2 inches. The smallest pans I had were twice that size, so I suppose my 4 should be called toddler loaves.

Being larger, they took longer to bake than the small ones would have, so I had to watch them carefully. They came out with a slight depression in the center, rather than being nicely rounded. Maybe the batter was too delicate to hold itself up in the bigger pans, or maybe I folded too vigorously and deflated the batter somewhat. The texture and flavor of the finished loaves were wonderful, though.

And oh, the cream that’s also part of the recipe! Sweetened whipped cream is certainly a good thing. Sweetened whipped cream mixed with mascarpone and a dash of grappa is a whole nother thing – to die for. This is a cream that makes you think about smearing it all over a lover’s body and licking it off. Or at least, buying some strawberries to have with the leftover cream the next day. Which is what we did, and I’m looking forward to it for tonight.

By the way, all the recipes in the book are credited to professional chefs who worked with Julia on the television series. This recipe is from Johanne Killeen, a chef-owner of El Forno restaurant in Providence, Rhode Island.

My Julia Child Story

In 1992, I was invited on a food writers’ trip to Sicily. To everyone’s excitement, Julia Child was also among the participants. When I was introduced to her, the first thing Julia said to me, looking down from her 6-foot-plus height to my 5-foot-10 inches, was “Where do you buy your shoes?” The perennial challenge for big women!

Julia was a joy on that trip. Already 80 years old, she never missed a meal, she never missed a drink, and she was interested in everything that we saw and did. On the bus that took our group from one extravagant culinary event to the next, when most of us wanted only to nap off the latest indulgence, if you were sitting near Julia she’d poke you awake and start a conversation.

I took this photo of Julia examining a 6½ pound astice (lobster) that the chef of Ristorante Porto Bello, on the island of Lipari, off the Sicilian coast, was about to prepare for our group.

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