Saturday, December 18, 2010

Cranberry-apple Pie

I had one (almost completely) good day this week, save one rather intense fit of tears and the fact that my alarm didn't go off and I was late for class. The good part of the day involved making pie, and it seemed to be enough to salvage the dreary winter weather and a friend who ended up being a no-show for a dinner I made because of a lovely wintry mix of precipitation.

Running my fingers through soft flour and greasy butter was a welcome relief from the chaos that is my life at the moment. I've had barely a moment to relax. My new schedule of winter quarter classes and working what amounted to 40 hours-plus at a new (part-time) job has me reeling. But Wednesday, Wednesday, Wednesday. It was cold and grey with a sludge of old snow tossed in haphazard mounds, but I found it dark solace. I cooked a braise of Trappist beer, beef and onions in my house slippers while the afternoon sun dipped below the dead fingers of the trees.
It started with the pie though. Cranberry and apple pie topped with whipped cream. It was a beautiful mess, just a slop of fruit and syrup covered over with a latice top, just like a nice but insecure college girl mistakenly wearing fishnet tights out to some parties. She looks so provocative that there won't be anything left of her when she needs it.
Apple-cranberry Pie: from On Baking
1 pound apples, sliced
4 ounces brown sugar
4 ounces granulated sugar
1 tablespoon orange zest
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons corn starch dissolved in 2 tablespoons cold water
1 pint cranberries

Combine apples, sugar, zest, cinnamon and salt. Stir to coat the apples with the dry ingredients. Saute in a saucepan. Pour in the cornstarch and water. Continue sauteing until apples are softened but still firm to the bite. Remove from heat. Add the cranberries and dump into a pie shell. Bake at 400 for 25 to 30 minutes.

Monday, December 6, 2010

A Few Bad Decisions

Mistakes were made in the construction of this tart. It was supposed to turn into a lemon-polenta cake so beautiful on Nigel Slater's Web site that I couldn't resist. Things came a little undone in my kitchen, unraveling slowly and then nearly landsliding into defeat.
Things started out well. I measured the ingredients to the gram using my new scale. I even pulverized the polenta, knowing it to be a little coarse. 
When the cake came out of the oven, I was still encouraged. The smell was so pleasant and the top of the cake a lovely golden brown that I thought surely victory was mine. Until I turned it out and realized the cake was less than half the height it should have been. Did I make an error in converting Slater's Celsius to American Fahrenheit and made the oven too cold? Or was it the egg whites? Perhaps they weren't fluffy enough. Slater called for a 20 cm cake tin, mine is 9 inches, is that the same? No matter how I messed things up, it only got worse once I took the parchment paper off and the cake completely fell apart.
I had crumbs and a load of delicious light, creamy whipped topping mixed with lemon curd to frost them with. I just couldn't throw anything away. I stared at my products for a moment. The lemon whipped cream and the crumbs. And I thought, why not stir them together? Both taste good. Brilliance struck and I ladeled the crumby-whipped topping into cupcake sleeves to be eaten individually with a spoon. Maybe like ice cream?
A horrible idea! Just horrible. The cupcake things didn't hold their shape at all. It was a mushy mess. I was a mushy mess. I started crying alone in my kitchen on a Friday afternoon. I cursed. I cried some more. I cursed a little louder at my life, the crap cake I had just made, my skill as a baker, Nigel Slater. And then I threw one of the cupcake liners filled with sugary goo at the faucet of my sink. It splattered on the window, which actually felt good. Then I scraped all the goo back into the bowl, put the bowl in the fridge and went rock climbing at the gym.

At some point Friday, I came up with a decent idea. The goo tasted good, and I hated the thought of just throwing it away, plus there was so much of it, it seemed like it might make a good topping to a pie.
So I made a crust. This is where things started looking up. Things usually start looking up when that much butter is involved.
The crust came along nicely, and I used the remainder of the lemon curd for the icing with some berry jame for a thin filling.
And this tart is what came of the lemon-polenta cake. Really, it was quite good.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Onion Soup

I was first introduced to French-onion soup back when Panera was the Saint Louis Bread Company and it was located only in Saint Louis. We were staying at a hotel that just happened to be within walking distance of this glorious cafe that served the hearty soup in a bread bowl. My sisters and mother and I would scrape the insides of the bowl clean with our spoons, sopping up the soggy bread. But I soon shied away from the aromatic concoction when I hit college, started eating badly and was plagued with painful and embarassing gastrointestinal issues (if you catch my drift--no pun intended). The simple onion soup was out for years and years and years. Until a couple weeks ago when my dad ordered it for lunch at Granite City.

Neither Emily nor I had heard him order, we were probably absorbed in something related to Harry Potter. But when the waitress brought out his soup, covered in a slice of melted cheese, we were immediately interested. We begged for one little sip. We wanted to know what kind of cheese that was. Did they use gouda, gruyere, Swiss, parmesan? Were there little chunks of crouton floating in it? We ordered a cup of our own, to share.

My mom made a batch later that week, the leftovers of which I enjoyed with aged gouda. Then when I finally retreated back to my own home, post-Thanksgiving, instead of delving into my fridge packed with leftovers, I made onion soup following Nigel Slater's recipe from Tender with a little help from Julia Child. That was the first recipe I had made from Slater's 500-some-page tome about his vegetable patch, complete with jelousy-inducing photos every few pages. I still haven't made it all the way through the volume that includes recipes on a couple dozen common garden vegetables.
The soup, it went too fast. After only two servings. It was splendid with parmesan cheese (which I was too lazy to bake to melting point) and soggy sourdough, but it stands well alone. Barely sweet yet dark and savory. It's a fine companion on a dark winter night.
Onion Soup:
3 large onions, sliced
3 tablespoons butter
bay leaf (I added rosemary and thyme only because I had them)
2 tablespoons flour
1/2 cup dry white wine
5 cups beef stock
salt and pepper to taste
1/4 cup red wine plus a teaspoon of sugar or cognac

Slice the onions julienne. A trick I learned in school is to cut the onion in half and then slice along the perforated ribs of the vegetable to get beautiful, sexy slivers. Saute the onions in melted butter on medium-low heat for 25 to 30 minutes until softened but not browned, stirring occasionally. Add the bay leaf and flour. Stir to coat the onions with the flour. Add the wine, let simmer for a minute. Add the stock. Bring to a boil then reduce heat to let it simmer for another 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the wine with sugar or cognac or madeira, let simmer another five minutes. Serve in bowls topped with a slice of mild and aged cheese. Pop the bowls in the oven at 350 for five minutes to let the cheese melt. Serve.