Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Meyer Lemon Bars

meyer lemon bars

Recently I was given a spanking new copy of a well-known bakery's book. Already I was deeply familiar with a number of the recipes because I worked at there a few years back when I was contemplating becoming a baker myself. Behind the display case was a tray for employees filled with castaway tarts or cakes that had been dropped or dented, some accidentally, some not. The lemon bars were my favorite and all too easy for a sloppy fingertip to nick their glossy surface, thus whisking them away to the employee tray. I've never been someone to buckle over chocolate, but a nice lemon curd has always been worthy of a swoon.

I might be in the minority of former food-industry professionals who actually prefer home-cooking to taste like home-cooking. That could explain why I was a little disheartened to see the book's lemon bar recipe called for over 15 ingredients, including over a dozen eggs. The recipe is meticulously laid out so a cook of any experience level can follow them to the letter to achieve a bakery-quality result. It leaves one thinking, "These lemon bars must be totally amaze-balls, because it might take all of 3 hours to make these suckers."

I have a very small kitchen, unfriendly to recipes designed for an industrial use. I have the patience of someone half my age. If we're trying to get more people into the kitchen, recipes like this are not the way. I hear from friends all the time that they "can't bake" or worse, fear it, as though it's neurosurgery. It needn't be so scary. **Case in point: David Lebowitz's recipe for Whole Lemon Bars. Shortcuts get a bad rap. In some recipes, like macarons, they will never work. But when they do, I say take the money and run. Use good technique as your route instead of pre-made ingredients (much as I love looking at the jiggly jars of lemon pie-filling at Plaid Pantry, it's not really something I want to eat). Save your energy for a day where you want to make madeleines or more refined sweets. Let your lemon bars be simple, dead simple. They will still be delicious.

**Edit: Recipe belongs to Mr. Lebowitz, shown below with a few humble liberties taken on my part.

DSCN2826

Meyer Lemon Bars

I love this recipe because it uses the whole lemon, something I've always wished more citrus-based recipes would do. I have reduced the sugar, because meyer lemons are sweeter than a standard lemon and because I like desserts to be very tart.There's something really refreshing to me about not letting anything go to waste. The whole lemon lends the bar a very nice firm texture and their soft yellow color.

Ingredients for Crust:

1 cup all-purpose baking flour
1/4 cup unrefined sugar
1/4 teaspoon coarse sea salt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
8 Tbs or 1 stick of melted unsalted butter

Ingredients for Lemon Curd Topping:

1 meyer lemon, organic or unsprayed
2/3 cup unrefined sugar
3 Tbs. freshly squeezed lemon juice (from a regular old tart lemon, not a meyer)*
3 large eggs, at room temperature
4 teaspoons cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon coarse sea salt
3 Tbs. melted unsalted butter, cooled

Directions:
1. Preheat the oven to 350 Farenheit.
2. Prepare an 8-inch square baking pan by lining it with tin foil, shiny side down.
3. In a medium bowl, whisk the flour, 1/4 cup sugar, and 1/4 tsp. coarse sea salt together. Drizzle 8 Tbs. melted butter and 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract over the mix and combine with hands until the crust dough has the consistency of crumbly wet sand.
4. Press the crust dough into the prepared pan and smooth into the corners evenly with your hands. You can also use a spatula to smooth the surface so its flat.
5. Bake the crust for 25 minutes, until it is nice and golden.
6. While the crust bakes, prepare the topping. Cut the meyer lemon in half and remove the seeds with a small, sharp paring knife. Divide the lemon into quarters.
7. Place lemon quarters in a food processor or blender (I used a blender), along with 2/3 cup unrefined sugar and 3 Tbs. lemon juice. Whiz it until the lemon is properly broken up, then add 3 eggs, 4 tsp. cornstarch, 1/4 tsp coarse sea salt, and 3 Tbs. melted butter. Process again until the mixture is smooth (but not too frothy!). It's okay if there's still a few bits of lemon here or there, that will enhance the texture of the bar.
8. Take the crust out of the oven, and pour the topping over the hot crust. Reduce the heat to 300 degrees Farenheit. Bake for another 25 minutes, or until the filling has barely set and doesn't wiggle when you give it a small shake.
9. Remove the pan from the oven and allow it to cool completely. Once cool, carefully lift the bars out of the pan. Cut the bars evenly into squares or smaller rectangles. Sift confectioner's sugar on top if you like and serve. **

Yield: 9-12 bars.

* I liked these best when I used regular lemon juice as opposed to meyer lemon juice, to give them a bit more acidity.
** The tarts can be stored at room temperature in a airtight container for 3 days, or stored for up to a month in the freezer and thawed before serving.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Chorizo Chickpea Stew

chorizo chickpea stew
A Portland winter can bring out the madness in almost anyone. I think it has to do with way the clouds hang low and rarely lift above street-sign level. Even on the rare sunny day we had last week, it felt so fleeting that I stayed outside as long as I could in the cold to wring out every moment of it. Once the rain returns, you never know how long it will drag out for.

Naturally, fortification is essential. In this season, I dose myself with color. I find comfort in the bolder tastes of far off places, preferably somewhere very warm and sunny. I can't really afford to hop a flight to Barcelona (is it even sunny there right now?), but if I root around in my cupboard very briefly I can come up with something that will allow me to escape there for long enough to lift me out of my winter blahs.

What I love most about Spanish cooking is the contrast of bold colors with complex, often gentle flavors. I like how ingredients are intended to taste like the best version of themselves. I recently had a plate of fideos cooked in squid ink that had the same rich complexity of flavor as a Mexican mole. Everywhere you looked was a new pop of color: a pink piece of octopus, the green shock of cilantro, a velvet swirl of creme fraiche. Its big, bad blackness played tricks on my eyes, yet its flavors were a sweet and subdued departure. It took me out of Portland, out of my own little world for the 10 minutes it took me to eat it. It completely arrested me, however quietly.

Lately, my go to spice of transport is pimenton. It's a bit hotter than the cupboard paprika we had growing up, and smokier too. And oh! its color is a deep, sienna red that happily lends itself to anything it's added to, in the same fashion of turmeric or saffron. In this simple chickpea stew, it unifies the flavor of the sweeter ingredients like shallots with the more acidic ones like tomatoes. I also find easy recipes like this which are packed with healthy and interesting ingredients are essential when the winter has challenged your spirits and you feel too tired to cook.

When I say I love to cook, I mean that I love to eat what I cook. I am, if nothing else, eater first and cook second. Most of all, I love that quiet moment when you first sit down to dinner and the day's events fall away. When everyone eats together we can be happy because there is good, honest food on the table and it is delicious. Or perhaps, as on a day like today where I plan to dine alone, I can have this little moment to myself before I continue on with everything else.

DSCN2668

Chorizo and Chickpea Stew For Two

This recipe is intended to be flexible. It can easily be transformed as a vegetarian dish, and sometimes I add a little squid or shrimp if I have any in the freezer. I really enjoy the sweetness of sherry against the heat of the pimenton. This is enough stew for two people, or you can be greedy as I am and save the rest for lunch the following day.

Ingredients:
1 Tbs. olive oil
6-8 oz. chorizo
4 shallots, thinly sliced
1 stalk celery, chopped
2 cloves garlic
1/4 cup dry fino sherry
1/2 cup crushed tomatoes
1 can chickpeas, liquid reserved
1 teaspoon pimenton (or more to taste)
Juice of a half a lemon
1 handful of cilantro or parsely, roughly chopped with a few sprigs for garnish (optional)
Salt and Pepper, to taste

Directions:
1. Over medium heat, swirl 1 Tbs. olive oil around a saucepan with a heavy bottom.
2. Add the chorizo to the pan and cook until browned, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a plate.
3. Add the shallots and celery to the pan and cook until translucent, about 3 minutes. Now add the garlic and stir once more. Add salt and pepper.
4. Pour the dry sherry into the pan, and stand back for it will throw out quite a bit of steam and make a nice hissing sound. Allow the alcohol to cook off for 2 or 3 minutes, stirring to scrape up any brown bits at the bottom of the pan.
5. Add the tomatoes, chickpeas and pimenton to the pan. Bring to a boil then simmer for 20 minutes. If the stew looks too soupy for your taste, add a bit of the reserved chickpea liquid to thicken it.
6. Add the lemon juice and cilantro or parsely. Taste the stew and adjust seasonings if you see fit. I often like to add a little more pimenton. Serve hot with rice or couscous.

Yield: 2 servings

Sunday, December 26, 2010

An Illustrated View of Home: Sour Cream Coffee Cake

snow storm, fixed

minot  beach, new year's eve

marshes

We'ree nestled in for a giant winter storm compounded with an astronomical high tide on the coast of Massachusetts. This is my home. The home away from Portland. Ah, and how could I forget my other home? Here she is:

sour cream coffee cake

I can't even look at a coffee cake without thinking of my mother. Her recipe's origin, passed down to her from my grandmother, is a mystery. It may come from the scribbling written on the back of a sour cream carton, it may have come from her mother. With that end of the story in flux, the one thing that isn't up for grabs are the ingredients: real sour cream, vanilla, walnuts, and lots and lots of butter. She bakes it every Christmas morning, and it just doesn't feel like a holiday without it.
Once the cake leaves the oven we eschew the niceties of letting it cool. The walnuts are picked off the top out of a collective impatience, the cake is haphazzardly sliced and slathered with more butter and maybe even a little salt, and the entire cake disappears within the first 48 hours. Eating any other coffee cake feels almost adulterous. There just isn't anything more satisfying for me than this, as simple as it is. Try as I might, my heart is with this cake. Always has been, always will be.

coffee cake

Sour Cream Coffee Cake

By folding sour cream into the batter the cake gains a tanginess that plays against the vanilla and walnuts, keeping it from tasting too sweet. I like to sprinkle a little grey sea salt in the top of the cake, so you get a little bit of flaky zing in the mix. When I get restless, I might add a tiny bit of lemon zest. I view an extra pat of butter on my slice as obligatory, but you may omit it.

Ingredients:
1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus 1 Tbs. extra for greasing
1 cup fine granulated sugar
2 eggs, at room temperature
1 tsp. vanilla
2 cups flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1 cup sour cream
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/3 cup brown sugar
1/3 cup whole walnuts

Directions:
1. Preheat the oven at 350 degrees F. Grease a bundt or angel-food cake pan with a Tbs. of butter.
2. Using a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, cream together the butter and granulated sugar at medium-low speed. Add the eggs, one at a time, followed by the vanilla.
3. In a separate medium-sized bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt.
4. In three batches, add the dry ingredients to the wet batter, incorporating fully each time. Once done, fold the sour cream into the batter. I fold about 6 times, then stop. You should see a swirl of sour cream still. You just want it to lace the batter with that tangy flavor. Be sure not to overmix!
5. In a small bowl, combine the cinnamon, brown sugar and walnuts. I prefer to do this with my hands. Sprinkle half of the mixture into the bottom of the bundt pan.
6. Add half of the batter to the pan, spreading it over the bottom. Sprinkle the remaining half of the walnut mixture on top, then cover again with the remaining batter, smoothing the top.
7. Bake the cake for 45 minutes, until the exterior is golden and a tester comes out clean.

Yield: 8-12 servings.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Mrs. Booth's Famous Chili

chili

My mother is a fantastic cook. But it wasn't always this way. I don't know if she liked to cook when I was growing up. As a mother to two finicky young eaters, cooking was about getting something on the table. There's little I remember about what we ate day-to-day. I know there were a lot of Spaghetti-O's (Sorry, Mom!) and once in awhile this thing she called "quiche" which is nothing like quiche, really. I vaguely recall her filling a Pillsbury pie-crust with eggs, shredded white cheddar, and cream cheese. It was okay.

I couldn't have been less prepared for the first time I tasted Mrs. Booth's Famous Chili, which has since become My Mother's Famous Chili. Mrs. Booth, our next door neighbor, invited us over for dinner one evening when I couldn't have been older than eight. The interior of their home was starch-white and pristine, full of modern furniture and glass cabinets that housed collectible porcelain dolls. In the kitchen, the smell of cumin and savory beef billowed out of a crockpot, and the windows dripped with condensation. A plate of Pillsbury crescents had been deconstructed and reborn as pastry twists, sprinkled with chili powder. There was a large bowl of sour cream and a second filled with a pile of orange grated cheese. She told us to dig in and help ourselves.

chili

I didn't feel up to it at first, but my parents gave my sister and I that look. The "don't you dare embarass us in front of company" look. Too proud to back down, I helped myself to a bowl that spoiled me on any other kind of chili forever. It was so hot and spicy my knee-jerk reaction was to cry, but the brown sugar and chili spices urged me on. I know children have very particular tastebuds but this chili was so packed with flavor from the peppers and tender beans and honest-to-god good ground beef that I was flown light-years ahead to the adult table where food was better than I ever could have imagined. This chili promised good, exotic things to come.

Mrs. Booth sent us home with the recipe, and every year since when the mercury drops (or maybe just afternoons where we wished it would), mom puts her soup pot on the burner. When I moved and set up my own kitchen, I took this recipe with me. I do a few things differently, but in the spirit of Mrs. Booth's original designs. I serve mine with a little creme fraiche dotted w/ chopped chives. I use a mix of dried beans and soak them the night before. A friend taught me to simmer my own beans so I can imbue them with even more flavor (bay leaves! celery!). It doesn't take that much more time, and if you simmer them when you're having your coffee, it really isn't an energy-zapper at all. Make this on a Sunday when the house is freezing. Start in the late morning so it can simmer all day. Call your friends over for a chili party. Have someone bring some cornbread and someone else bring the beer with lime.


chili, fixed

Mrs. Booth's Famous Chili

Ingredients For the Beans:* (See below)
2/3 cup dried pinto beans
2/3 cup dried kidney beans
1 carrot, cut in half
1 celery, cut in half
1/2 white onion
2 cloves garlic
3 sprigs of marjoram

Ingredients for the Chili:
2 Tbs. olive oil
3 lbs. ground beef
1 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes
2 large yellow onions, diced
1 green bell pepper, diced
1 anaheim chile, seeds removed, diced
3 cloves garlic, chopped
3 Tbs. ancho chili powder
2 Tbs. dark brown sugar
1 Tbs. crushed red pepper
3 Tbs. red wine vinegar
1 tsp. ground cumin
salt & pepper to taste

Ingredients For The Toppings:
1/4 cup creme fraiche
2 tbs chopped chives
1/2 cup shredded cheddar

*NOTE: If you prefer to use canned beans, substitute those suggested above w/ a 15.5 oz. can each of kidney and pinto beans. Use the beans & their liquid.

Directions:
1. DO AHEAD: Soak the beans with enough water to cover overnight. In the morning, drain them and transfer to a medium-size sauce pan. Cover with water, add to this the onion, carrot, celery, garlic, bay leaf, and marjoram sprigs.
2. Bring the beans to a boil, then simmer uncovered for 2 hours over low heat, adding 1/2 teaspoon salt after the first hour. If the water goes too far below the beans, add more. Test the beans for doneness by scooping up a small spoonful and blowing on them. If the skins peel away, they are done. Discard the carrot, onion, celery, and bay leaf.
3. To make the chili, heat the olive oil in a 4 quart, heavy bottomed dutch oven over medium heat. Add the ground beef to the pan, stirring to brown, about 8-10 minutes. When all of the beef has been carmelized, drain off the excess fat.
4. To the pot add the undrained kidney and pinto beans, tomatoes, chopped onions and peppers, garlic, chili powder, dark brown sugar, crushed red pepper, red wine vinegar, cumin, salt and pepper.
5. Cover and simmer the chili for at least one hour, stirring frequently to prevent burning. The chili improves if simmered for 2-3 hours, and tastes even better the following day.
6. Serve the chili hot with toppings as you wish.

YIELD: 8 servings


Sunday, November 14, 2010

Friulian Sourdough-Hazelnut Apple Torte

Friulian Apple Torte

Not all recipes are created equally. When October's Bon Appetit magazine came my way, I fell so hard for Lidia Bastianch's Apple Torte's backstory that I barely glanced beyond the ingredient list.. The torte comes from Italy's Friuli region, where German and Italian cuisine have coalesced over the generations. How resourceful the peasants of Friuli were to create a torte crust out of stale bread! How quaint and romantic!

Lest this blog be only a celebration of my kitchen triumphs, I submit to you one of my many errors. I'm so sorry to report that this recipe was a complete and total mess. There were so many glitches I was surprised it had made it so far as to snag the cover without so much as a proof here or there. Just goes to show you that you can't even judge anything, even a magazine, by its cover.

It wasn't until college when I began to cook regularly. At first, I relied so heavily on recipes from start to finish that I felt tired at the end of cooking a meal. The more cooking I did the more I allowed my eyes to stray, and to be honest, the better my food began to taste. It may come odd coming from someone who often writes her recipes down, but what these ought to be for the home cook are a jumping off point. Had I followed the original recipe for this Apple Torte to the letter, I might have been down one entire loaf of sourdough and up one hefty headache. Screw that.

As a cook, there is nothing more important than your gut. It is, afterall, where everything ends up. I taste nearly everything as I go to make sure it's coming along. When I make a stuffing, or a dough, or the base of a soup, I often season instinctively and in steps. My hands and eyes can judge whether things are the right color, texture, or consistency. It's so much less daunting than it sounds! By cooking more often, your instincts will develop. A tablespoon becomes familiar in appearance, when pate brisee needs more water or flour you will know this because it will just feel right. If a recipe looks janky and incorrect to you, odds are it is, and better you do what you can to ammend it. Don't lose your cool or throw it away. Stay calm and determine what can be done.

This torte found its happy ending, but not without some huffing and puffing on my end. I used all of the 8 cups of bread crumbs called for, in spite of the original recipe's suggestion you use only 3 cups after the lot has been toasted. When you toast the crumbs, the bread does shrink down some. When my apple slices simmering in hard cider turned into applesauce, I didn't get all weepy. In the end, the torte had a crisp crust thanks to the hazelnuts and sourdough crumbs, and the applesauce filling proved a silky counterpoint to this. It wasn't too sweet or buttery and I used very tart pippin apples in mine because apples in Oregon go gangbusters this time of year. I'm not certain it's something I would go back to again and again (a la David Tanis' Apple Tart recipe) but I do think this torte turned out very close to what Ms. Bastianich might have originally intended. How do I know this? When we sat down to dinner that night, several people (ahem!) helped themselves to seconds.

Friulian Apple Torte


Friulian Apple Torte with a Sourdough-Hazelnut Crust
Adapted From Lidia Bastianich's Recipe

Ingredients

Apple filling:
2 pounds Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored, cut into 1/2-inch wedges
1/3 cup sugar
1 cup hard apple cider or dry white wine

Crust:
8 cups fresh breadcrumbs made from a large loaf of sourdough bread, ground in a food processor
1 cup hazelnuts
10 tablespoons sugar, divided
4 teaspoons finely grated lemon peel
1/4 teaspoon (generous) salt
3/4 cup whole milk
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch pieces
Powdered sugar (for dusting)
Whipped cream

Directions:
1. To make the crust, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Spread breadcrumbs on a large rimmed baking sheet. Bake until dried and light golden, stirring occasionally, about 20 minutes. Cool completely.
2. Toast the hazelnuts for ten minutes on a separate baking sheet for 10 minutes while the breadcrumbs are toasting. Place them in a clean dishtowel and wrap them tightly. Allow them to sit for a minute or two and rub them together to remove their husks. Allow hazelnuts to cool completely.
3. Finely grind the hazelnuts and 6 tablespoons sugar in processor. Add the toasted breadcrumbs, working in batches if necessary; process 5 seconds. Transfer mixture to large bowl. Stir in 4 tablespoons sugar, lemon peel, and salt. Combine milk and butter in small saucepan. Stir over medium heat just until butter melts. Pour milk-butter mixture over breadcrumb mixture; stir until moistened (dough will be sticky). Let dough rest in bowl until liquid is absorbed, about 15 minutes.
4. Transfer 1 cup dough to floured work surface. Gather into ball; flatten into disk. Press out to 9-inch round; wrap in plastic. It's OK if it crumbles a little. It will help to put the round onto a plate for transfering to the fridge.Chill at least 1 hour for top crust.
5. Transfer remaining dough to work surface. Gather into ball; flatten into disk. Press disk onto bottom and up sides of 9-inch tart pan with removable bottom, pushing crust up to extend 1/2 inch above sides. Cover; chill at least 1 hour.
6. While the dough is chilling, make the apple filling. Arrange the apples in an even layer in a large heavy skillet. Sprinkle with sugar, then pour apple cider over. Cook and cover over medium heat until apples are tender, gently turning apples occasionally 8-10 minutes (for me this took only 6 minutes, so it depends on the variety of your apples). Some apples with fall apart, but this is alright. Uncover; cook until juices evaporate in skillet. Allow the apples to cool completely.
7. Preheat oven to 375°F. Assemble the tart. Fill crust with apple mixture. Place top crust over filling. Fold bottom crust overhang up over top crust edges, pressing together to seal. There will likely be some cracks here or there, but that is alright.
8. Bake torte until crust is deep golden and crust begins to separate from sides of pan (top crust may crack), about 1 hour. Cool in pan on rack at least 2 hours. Carefully remove sides from tart pan. Transfer to platter. Dust with powdered sugar. Cut into wedges. Serve with whipped cream.

YIELDS
: 6-8 Servings.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Butternut Squash and Apple Soup

DSCN2624

Cold season is upon us in Oregon. I can't pinpoint why unlike years past Autumn decided to snap so suddenly into place instead of slowly settling over us. Maybe it's been doing so all along and I've been too preoccupied to notice it. One morning last week I looked out the window to find the birch leaves close to completely turned and my radiator rattling with steam. I put the ridiculously giant stock pot on the stove and filled it with whatever I had been saving in the freezer over the summer. This time several duck carcasses, (wings and back bones), and a giant bunch of leeks, thyme, carrots, and celery leaves. As luck would have it, I woke up the next day with a pinch in my throat and a raw nose. The cold my friends have caught and dispatched seems to have claimed me too. Damn!

Lucky for me, Andrew came by with a grab-bag of CSA vegetables, claiming there was so much he didn’t know if he could use it all. He unloaded an overwhelming plenty: one small but gorgeously wrinkled savoy cabbage, ivory turnips, brilliant-colored sweet peppers, a mystery white-fleshed squash, seemingly every sort of braising greens, and an onion so pungent Nancy’s eyes teared up at the first slice. Since it was such a perfect, crisp fall day we decided to make a soup out of the squash and a gratin of the cabbage and greens.

I’ve never met a butternut squash soup I didn’t like, but there’s really only one variation I love. One year for Halloween, a family friend brought over a giant pot of the stuff. Hers incorporated apples, fresh cider, and curry. It was sweet, velvety, with a subtle heat from a dash of cayenne pepper. The turmeric in the curry turns the soup a harvest-moon color and the apple gives the soup a gentle sweetness. For mine, I of course made adjustments. I use hard cider and homemade stock (because I'm a cheap little miser and refuse to let the errant bone or scrap go to waste), a little fresh thyme, shallots, and garam masala in addition to madras curry powder. Sometimes I use several different kinds of squash, in particular I love red kuri & cinderella squash for this. The soup only impoves in flavor the following day.


Butternut Squash and Apple Soup

1 medium butternut squash, diced
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
2 shallots, chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
3 Tbs. butter
1 Tbs. olive oil
2 carrots, diced
2 tart apples, peeled and diced
3 sprigs of thyme, leaves stripped and chopped
1 bay leaf
1 tsp. madras curry powder
1/2 tsp. of nutmeg
1/2 tsp. garam masala
1 tsp. sea salt
1/2 tsp. white pepper (black is fine, also)
2 cups hard cider
2 quarts of good-quality stock (vegetarian or chicken)
1/3 cup of heavy cream (optional)


Directions:

1. In a large pot with a heavy bottom melt the butter and olive oil together over medium heat. Once the butter has begun to bubble, add the onion, shallots, and garlic, stirring with a wooden spoon frequently until the onions have begun to turn translucent, about 5 minutes.
2. Add the curry, nutmeg, and garam masala to the pot and stir to incorporate. Add the butternut squash, carrots, and apples. Stir again and allow the squash and apple to soften, about 10 minutes. Add salt and pepper to season.
3. Add the cider to the pot, it will steam. Stir once more, then add the stock. Bring the soup to a boil and lower the heat. Simmer the soup for 40-50 minutes, until the squash is very tender.
4. Carefully ladle the soup into a blender (or skip this step entirely if you have an immersion blender--lucky duck!), working in small batches. Return the pureed soup to the pot and season again with salt and pepper if necessary. Add the cream, if using, stir and serve immediately.

Yield: 6-8 servings.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Hazelnut Brown Butter Cake.

hazelnut brown butter cake

Doesn't everyone have a ritual when they return from a long trip? Walking through the front door, I stoop to pick up my cat who sits with her tail curved at her feet, chirping, almost exactly as I left her. More museum than home, my apartment is redolent of my neighbor's cigarettes and settled dust and cat litter.

Now I make a beeline for the oven. My place is on the small side, all the easier to sage out empty odors with the scent of melted butter, clove, cinnamon, vanilla. When I feel lazy, I bake only what I know how to make by heart. When I feel extra-assertive (and game for all the whisking, grinding, and other specifics this recipe requires), I make this hazelnut brown-butter cake.

My hazelnut obsession began soon after moving to Portland. They were everywhere! I went overboard, putting them in everything I possibly could, smearing hazelnut butter anywhere I saw fit. I'm slightly embarrassed to admit I've taken to picturing their taste when homesick, just as I do the damp winters (weird, right?) or the turning clouds above my building at the end of a rare sunny day. They make anything they're paired with taste even better. Peaches, pears, pork, wine. Everything. But the best thing to come out of my hazelnut craze has been this recipe for brown-butter cake.

I concede the recipe is a tad involved but your efforts will be rewarded. Your friends will be happy to help you polish off any lingering crumbs. In a pinch you can purchase hazelnut flour, but to be honest it's not worth a dime unless you grind it yourself. Save your money and buy them whole, raw, and in bulk. The cake is even better next day, but rarely does it make it that far. It's great on its own or with poached pears and a dollop of creme fraiche.

hazelnut cake, fixed

Hazelnut Brown Butter Cake
Adapted from Suzanne Goin's Sunday Suppers At Lucques, via Smitten Kitchen

Ingredients:

5 ounces hazelnuts
1/2 pound unsalted butter
1/2 vanilla bean
1 1/3 cups powdered sugar
1/3 cups all-purpose flour
6 extra-large egg whites
3 tablespoons granulated sugar

Directions:

1. Preheat oven to 350 °F.

2. Spread the hazelnuts on a baking sheet, and toast 12 to 15 minutes, until they’re golden brown and smell nutty. If they still have their skins, put the hot hazelnuts into a clean towel and rub them to remove the bitter skins. Allow the hazelnuts to cool completely.

3. Cut out a circle of parchment paper to fit in the bottom of a 10-inch round cake pan. Brush the pan with a little melted butter and line the bottom with the paper.

4. Place the rest of the butter in a medium saucepan. Slice the vanilla bean lengthwise down the center, using a paring knife to scrape the seeds and pulp onto the butter. Add the vanilla pod to the pan, and cook the butter until the butter browns and smells nutty (this took about 8 minutes for me). Every so often, scrape the bottom of the pan with your spatula to make sure the butter browns evenly. Remove and discard the vanilla bean.

5. In a food processor, grind the hazelnuts with the confectioners’ sugar until a fine meal forms. Add the flour and pulse to combine. Transfer to a large bowl.

6. Place the egg whites in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Add the granulated sugar and mix on high speed 4 to 5 minutes, until the mixture forms very stiff peaks. When you turn the whisk upside down, the peaks should hold. Transfer the whites to a large mixing bowl.

7. Fold the dry mix and brown butter into the egg whites, a third at a time. The vanilla beans tend to sink to the bottom of the brown butter, so be sure to scrape the bottom and use it all!

8. Pour the batter into your cake pan, and bake for 50 minutes to 1 hour. Check the cake for done-ness at 40 minutes and continue every five minutes until a toothpick inserted at the cake's center comes out clean. Allow the cake to cool for 30 minutes. Run a small, sharp knife around the inside edge of the pan, and invert the cake onto a plate. Peel off the paper, and turn the cake back over onto a serving platter. Sprinkle it with powdered sugar.