Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A New Twist on a Holiday Favorite

Pecan Pie is a true Thanksgiving specialty. Though I didn't grow up making pecan pie with my family (my dad was in charge of the most delicious pumpkin pie...), a nutty pie has in recent years had a spot at our thanksgiving table. I usually make the pecan pie and I'm still working on refining my own recipe. I like to use more "natural" and unrefined sweeteners, like honey and maple syrup, which not only cuts the cloying sweetness, but also deepens and enhances the nut flavor. I'm interested in trying some rosemary in the mixture, and possibly "mixing" the nuts - from pecans, to a blend of almonds, hazelnut, and walnuts.

For a recent feast of food at school, I and seven classmates masterminded a "Wild Harvest" themed luncheon, featuring "foraged" foods like root vegetables, greens, venision, boar, trout, and much more. It was only fitting that one dessert be a nutty pie/tart to complement our dessert, a cranberry apple "cake." I am a huge fan of Once Upon A Tart, down on Sullivan Street in NYC - their biscotti, sandwiches, cookies - all utterly heavenly! I was quite delighted to find they feature a chocolate walnut tart in their cookbook. Our second dessert it will be!

The recipe itself is very straightforward, and not too sweet or custardy. My one complaint (and I'm sure this is because I was using short sided french tart rings over a cast iron pan and making 6x the normal batch!) was that the filling did boil over on two of the tarts (maybe it was much hotter on lower shelves, too - I think that is most likely). Though the tarts were not ruined, these two tarts definitely made me worry for a time. Having made multiple tarts over the past couple of months, I also noticed that this dough, albeit very tender and fragile, doesn't stick at all! I liked to put lots of chocolate drizzle on top of the tarts (though next time, I would use dark chocolate!).

Once Upon A Tart's Chocolate Walnut Tart
2 large eggs
1/4 c sugar
1/4 c honey
1/2 c plus 2 tbsp light corn syrup
2 tbsp melted butter, room temp
1/4 c light cream
2 1/4 c walnut halves
1 unbaked flaky tart crust (9", 1" sides or taller)
1/2 c dark chocolate pieces
1 tsp solid veg shortening

1. Preheat oven to 375
2. Whisk the eggs and sugar in a big bowl to combine. Whisk in honey and corn syrup, then the butter, cream, and nuts. Pour into tart shell.
3. Place tart in center of oven and bake for 50-55 minutes, or until lightly golden and the filling is just set.
4. Let tart cool completely
5. While tart cools, heat the shortening and chocolate til just melted.
6. Cut tart into 8 wedges. Drizzle chocolate over wedges (alternatively, you can also drizzle chocolate over the uncut tart).

Serve with vanilla ice cream or gelato -- honey thyme is best!

Monday, December 7, 2009

Tasty Hors D'Oeuvres with Ease?

Today in school, my group hosted our buffet, themed a "Wild Harvest," with "foraged berries, mushrooms, and greens, and some boar and venision we "hunted."

One of our tasks was to come up with two Hors d'Oeuvres for today's feast (in addition to the two from last week). After brainstorming multiple ideas, we came up with the following:

for last week's "practice" - bacon wrapped stiltion creme stuffed dates on cucumber rounds and tomato bruschetta on baguette rounds

for our "wild harvest," house smoked trout with a horseradish creme on pumpernickel and - my new versatile favorite - red onion thyme confit and pancetta on a polenta round.

These little sweet and tender, yet crispy and savory bites were relatively easy to make too! I already find myself dreaming up variations on a theme:

pear compote with a blue cheese crumble on a round
lamb ragu over rosemary polenta rounds
pesto and cherry tomatoes over mozzarella polenta
Roast beef and braised chard over crispy polenta
Apple compote over cinnamon polenta (maybe?)

Anything is possible - here is the basic recipe I followed:

My plain version of Ina's Rosemary Polenta:
1 stick butter
1/4 c olive oil
1 tbsp minced garlic - about 3 cloves
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
3 c chicken stock
2 c half and half
2 c milk (or 1 c heavy cream, 3 c milk)
2 c cornmeal (I like Gray's!)
1/2 c good grated parmesan
Flour, olive oil, and butter for frying

6 large red onions
Crisp pancetta rounds

Polenta: Heat butter and oil in a large saucepan. Add the garlic, salt, pepper and saute 1 min. Add stock, milk/cream, and bring to a boil. Remove from heat and slowly sprinkle the cornmeal into the hot milk while stirring constantly with a whisk. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly, for a few minutes until thickened and bubbly. Off the heat, stir in the cheese. Pour into one/two sheet pans and spread to desired thickness (I like 1/4" or 3/8" or so). Refridgerate until cold.

Using a round or fluted (or whatever you wish!) cutter, cut out shapes from polenta. While butter and oil are heating in pan, gently dust shapes with flour. Cook over medium heat for 3-5 minutes, turning one time, until golden. Drain/let cool.

Topping: Slice onions and sweat them in butter in a pan, then add port to cover, along with the thyme, and reduce, slowly cooking under meltingly tender. While the compote cools, crisp the pancetta in the oven.

When all ingredients are ready, assemble them: round, compote, pancetta. Straightforward, flexible - and most important, tasty!


Sunday, December 6, 2009

Healthy Popovers?!

Popovers are a transformative food, I think. If you're having a bad day, a popover is a warm, eggy yet bread-y piece of goodness that comforts me. How can you not smile when you crack one open the golden crispy exterior to discover the buttery-yellow tender and warm inside?

I grew up eating popovers on special occasions - Christmas, maybe Easter or another family meal. We would make our own raspberry butter to go along with it. It was also a real fun and special back-to-school treat when my mom would take me and my sisters to The Zodiac at the Neiman Marcus shop at the Westchester Mall. With the complimentary chicken consomme to start the meal, the waiter would bring out the LARGEST perfect popovers with raspberry butter. I still aspire to re-create that puff!

Now, in my family, I've taken over the popover role. I seem to have pretty good luck with these tricky buggers! The trick I have found most helpful is to preheat the popover mold so it's hot when I put the batter in. Oh, and don't open the door. For that matter, don't jump, slam things, or hop. You can sneeze, though.

So popovers have a couple of basic ingredients - eggs, flour, salt, milk, butter. I use the traditional recipe from Joy of Cooking, but when my sister recently returned from Morocco, she wanted to try whole wheat popovers.

My reaction - wait, WHAT?! I worried that whole wheat flour would be too heavy to puff. So, I decided to play around and discovered a foolproof combination. Take whole wheat pastry flour (it's as light as whole wheat flour can get), throw in a teaspoon of salt and sift together. Then, in a bowl, beat four whole eggs (this is going to give the popovers their structure. I usually use less, and some butter for flavor and tenderness, when I use normal flour, but these guys will need a boost). Add a cup of milk (I used whole - I'm tempted to see what would happen if I added some cream to give it some tenderness). Mix, add the sifted flour, and stir with a whisk to combine. I ladled the batter into hot, pre-buttered (butter after the pan is hot or butter will burn!) tin and cook for about 20 minutes at 425 in an convection oven (I watched them rise and turn golden rather than look at the clock, so note).

When they came out of the oven, they shrank so darn fast! I punctured them to let steam release, but I'm thinking next time I wonder if they won't collapse as fast if I don't and just let the shell cool. Alas, this is the one downside to these popovers, as I tasted one with some homemade jam right after I popped them out and they are definitely tasty, with a slight nuttiness to the tender insides.

Healthy popovers? I'm still not quite sure if popovers count as a "healthy" food, but these get awfully close!


Friday, December 4, 2009

A Cake Occasion

Tomorrow, I'm helping four other ladies host a baby shower for a dear friend of mine. We are each contributing a part of the decor and a dish - or two - for the meal.

The luncheon itself will be straightforward - salads and tea sandwiches, cider, Shirley Temples, and sparkling aperitifs. For dessert - my contribution - a yellow butter cake with chocolate frosting. Just like a store-bought cupcake, and that addictive Duncan Hines frosting, but oh so much better.

This cake - Rose Levy Beranbaum's All Occasion Downy Yellow Butter Cake - is OUT of this world. It is the cake that I compare everything to! Vanilla scented, with a fine moist crumb, it's a breeze to make and bake. I wanted a simple chocolate fudgy frosting. I usually make one from The NYT Cookbook, but didn't want to got through with all those steps. After some research, and a friend's recommendation, I decided to try the Mrs. Milman's Chocolate Frosting from Martha Stewart (okay, I doubled it). Very good results! What do you think?

All Occasion Downy Yellow Butter Cake - makes 2 9" rounds

6 large egg yolks - room temp
1 c milk
2 1/4 tsp vanilla
3 c sifted cake flour
1 1/2 c sugar
1 tbsp + 1 tsp baking powder
3/4 tsp salt
12 tbsp butter, softened

Preheat oven to 350. In medium bowl, combine yolks, 1/4 c milk, and vanilla. In large mixing bowl, combine the sifted flour, sugar, baking powder, salt. Mix on low til combined (30 sec). Then add softened butter and remaining 3/4 c milk. Mix on low to moisten, then on med-high for 1.5 minutes to develop the structure of the cake. Scrape down sides, and add egg mixture in 3 batches, mixing well (20 sec) after each addition. Pour into buttered, parchment lined, buttered again and floured 9" cake pans. Bake until tester clean, about 25-30 min. Let cool, remove from pan and remove parchment and cool completely.

Mrs. Milman's Chocolate Frosting - make 6 c (I made two batches and combined them)

24 oz semisweet chocolate morsels (I use 1/2 Ghiradelli semisweet, 1/2 bittersweet)
4 c heavy cream
1tsp light corn syrup

Melt chocolate and cream together in saucepan. Cook over med-low, stirring constantly, until thick, about 25-30 min. Remove from heat and stir in syrup. Cool completely, stirring every 15 min, or about 2 hrs (I chilled mine in fridge overnight and let it come to temp before using).