Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Three Posts in One Week and an Awesome Tart

I hosted dinner last night for friends in honor of a couple friends who are embarking on big journeys this week. One friend, Liz, is traveling to the brand new country of South Sudan tomorrow morning. She has "humanitarian" stamped into her passport. Incredible. And my friend Justin and his girlfriend Audrey are moving to Colorado on Thursday. Justin has never lived outside Omaha before, so this is sure to be a great adventure, one that should be marked off by a homey dinner with friends.

It's finally starting to get cold here, and with leftover turkey on my mind, I made two pot pies. One all mushrooms and one chicken. It actually took quite a bit of searching to come up with a meal plan. Justin is a vegetarian, so there couldn't be meat, but it's not exactly prime produce season and I didn't want to serve a bunch of sides. I leafed through what seemed like all my cookbooks (sometimes I can get obsessive), and finally found something on Nigel Slater's column about a mushroom shepherd's pie. It was an easy jump to pot pie (in theory). I have come to realize through my cakes final and my first year testing that I need a lot of work on finishing products. I start out strong, cover my bases with good technique, some expertise and quality ingredients. And then I've got to put the top on the pie, which it shall be noted was not in a pie shell, and I just throw it on. Of course it totally shrank in the oven. I may as well not have even topped it (the topless chicken pie turned out just fine).

I do this with everything I've come to realize. All projects. Writing a story; I get through the first draft and read through it and turn it in. I'll come back and give it some work, maybe. But by the end, I'm just doing the bare minimum. How do I motivate myself to put forth as much energy at the end as I do at the beginning when I'm absolutely slaving over coming up with the perfect lede for a story. Does anyone out there have any tips? One thing I can think of is practice. For example, if I'm well practiced at making petit fours, I can do them just as well after oh say 15 hours of work as I do after one hour. So there's something. But what about writing? If any of you have tips on that front, let me know!
I found three different kinds of mushrooms for the pot pie at Wohnler's: dried shiitake that I rehydrated, baby portobellos and oysters. Slater recommended pairing the mushrooms with a sliced leek, sauteing, deglazing with red wine and and lemon juice and adding vegetable stock before popping it in the oven. A couple heaping tablespoons of flour was plenty to thicken the stock to a stew inside the flaky pie crusts, and the pot pie turned out exactly how I had hoped: a sweet and woodsy hash with chunks of mushrooms. I treated the chicken pot pie in the same way, except added some extra celery and carrots that had been chilling in the freezer for a loooong time (yikes), almost as long as the chicken.

But the highlight of the meal was definitely dessert. I saw a recipe a for hazelnut-plum tart on Smitten Kitchen and made a mental note to make it as soon as there was time. (And I'll be making it again for work this week.) In absence of fresh plums, I used cranberries. It. was. incredible. The hazelnut butter crust was was crunchy with a bit of sweetness and just a hint of salt. The salt was the kicker. I love a salty dessert. And then there was the center. Creamy baked custard filled in the cracks around the tart little cranberries that just bled out juice under the heat of the oven. And to top it all was the rest of the hazelnut crumb crust and a little whipped cream (homemade, might I add). My good friend Dan has never ever eaten more than a polite bite of any desserts I have made (he doesn't like sweets) asked for a second slice--there wasn't any.

Mushroom Pot Pie:
Filling: by Nigel Slater
16 ounces assorted mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
1 leek, sliced
a couple tabs of butter and glugs of oil, enough to get all the mushrooms
2 heaping tablespoons flour
3 tablespoons red wine or marsala
1 1/4 cup vegetable or chicken stock
salt and pepper
fresh thyme
juice from half a lemon

Crust: from Tartine Bakery Cookbook yields two 9-inch pies
1 1/2 cups cold butter
16 ounces flour
1 cup ice cold water
1 teaspoon salt

I mix smaller batches of flaky crust by hand nowadays. I slice up the butter and add the flour and salt to it. Then I crumble up the butter with my fingers until they're about the size of peas, some smaller pieces some bigger. Then I add about half the water and stir with a wooden spoon. Then add only enough water until the dough comes together. I knead it a couple times, then wrap it in plastic wrap and chill it for at least an hour before rolling. This recipe makes enough for two whole pies with the tops, if you conserve your leftover pieces.

For the filling, slice up all the vegetables. Heat the oil on medium in a stock pot. Saute the leeks and the heartier mushrooms like portobellos, then add the shiitakes and oysters and the like. Saute until the moisture is starting to leech out of the mushrooms. Add the flour and stir to coat. Deglaze with the wine and the lemon juice. Then add the stock. Season throughout cooking with salt and pepper. It should taste good before it goes into the shell. Pour into the shell, pinch the top closed, brush with an egg wash and bake at 350 degrees for an hour or until the crust is a nice golden brown.

Hazelnut Cranberry Tart: from Smitten Kitchen
3/4 cup butter
1 1/2 cups flour
1/3 cup hazelnuts, toasted (this is a crucial step!)
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt

10 ounces fresh or frozen cranberries
1 egg
1 egg yolk
1 tablespoon flour
1/4 cup plus two tablespoons sugar
1/3 cup cream
1/4 cup milk
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

Toast the hazelnuts until they are light brown and nicely fragrant. Pulse in a food processor until coarsely ground. Combine with the butter, flour, salt and cinnamon, blending using your hands until the butter is the size of a pea. Use about two-thirds of the crumb mixture and press into the bottom of a tart pan or spring form. Bake at 350 degrees until "set," about 15 minutes. Let the crust cool a bit.

Add the cranberries and arrange on top of the crust. In a separate bowl, whisk together the rest of the ingredients. Carefully pour over the cranberries. Bake at 350 for 45 to 50 minutes or until the custard has set and the top has browned a little. If you gently shake the tart and the center is visibly quite jiggly keep baking. But if it seems more solid than liquid pull it out, it will continue to set while it cools.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Breaded Squash

And the beat goes on. It would have been a great idea to post this recipe before Thanksgiving, but I'm not exactly punctual. Up until last week, I was barely treading water. I have reclaimed my life, if only temporarily. If there's anything I've learned going to school the second time around, it's to soak up the free moments. I've got another two days off this week before winter classes start (International Breads, so excited), and I'm glad to spend a few minutes recording some recipes in this space.

I hosted another potluck probably three weeks ago now, and I found this easy fall recipe at Sprouted Kitchen, which is a vegetarian blog (some seafood I believe) with the absolute worst most disgusting photos you can ever imagine (sarcasm) and written by the ugliest meanest writer (lies, she's so gorgeous you want to hate her). The breaded squash turned out to be a real hit at the party though. There were a few pieces left at the end for me to nibble while cleaning up. I love winter squash. It's so hearty and bold. It's a vegetarian's best friend. I love that this dish is roasted--such a fall thing--with rosemary and thyme and a whole clove of garlic. I just love a kitchen that smells like rosemary and garlic. The rosemary comes straight out of the forest while that garlic is remotely offputting in a way that makes you want more--you know how you keep smelling that gym bag? This, my friends, is a winner.

Panko-breaded Butternut Squash:
1 butternut squash
1/2 cup panko bread crumbs, smashed up a bit more than how they come in the bag.
1 clove garlic with the bottom sliced off
several sprigs of fresh rosemary and thyme
olive oil
salt and pepper
1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese

Peel and dice the squash into equally-sized portions. Place in baking pans.

In a separate bowl, combine the panko crumbs, which you will want to smash up a bit more than how they come in the bag so they really stick to the squash, parmesan cheese, and salt and pepper. Drizzle the squash with olive oil and toss to coat. Season a bit with salt and pepper--not too much remembering the seasoning in the bread crumbs. Toss the bread crumb mixture in with the squash. Press the crumbs into the squash if necessary. Add the rosemary, thyme and garlic to the pan. Roast at 350 degrees for 30 minutes or until the squash is soft to the bite but not mushy.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Ends of Cakes

It has officially been the longest since I have posted on this blog. More than a month. In fact, this is the second time I've attempted completing this particular post. I fell asleep the first time. (If even the writer is falling asleep, this is not a good sign.) Obviously I have been busy. I have finally made it to the end of a clusterf*** of a week-and-a-half that went something like this: two stories due, cakes final examination, out-of-town wedding that served as a nice break, three grueling days going through the first-year culinary tests , a 15-hour day at work, intense cleaning at school (I took on a deep fat fryer--gross) and some light-to-heavy drinking (whoops).

I have emerged somewhat unscathed. I passed my exams and assumedly my cakes final, the output of which you can see in these photos. I look at the cakes up close and cringe a little. They look so sloppy--look at that broken ladyfinger below. I swear none of the other ladyfingers broke. And that chocolate cake doesn't look polished at all. It's supposed to have these smooth finished sides. But, they did taste delicious.

For a project, our cakes instructor gave each of the students an artist to design two cakes and 20 petit fours for. I drew Maria Martinez, who is an American Indian pottery artist known for developing this amazing black on black technique. She is credited with being the artist to bring American Indian art to museums and collectors.

I really lucked out with her because she is from New Mexico, an area with a distinct culinary tradition. I developed my cakes around the flavors of the Southwest. Note: Do not attempt these at home. It took me six hours, including quite a bit of actual running, to finish on time. The pink cake has a corn meal sponge bottom followed by a layer of lemon curd mousse, a sunflower seed baked meringue (which was awesome), then a prickly pear mouse and surrounded by ladyfingers. The chocolate cake had a chocolate sponge base, then chocolate-cinnamon-cayenne pepper mousse and a brown-sugar bavarian cream with another sunflower meringue and topped with chocolate-cinnamon-cayenne ganache and chocolate feather cutouts. The petit fours have a lemon sponge with sage-flavored pastry cream filling, a poured fondant top and royal icing piping.

I enjoyed playing around with the Southwest theme and thought everything turned out alright, aside from the fact that I think the cakes are the equivalent of a third graders coloring book instead of a professional but whatever.

I really grew to adore mousse even more in this class. I hadn't realized how easy it can be to attempt, although I feel a long way from perfecting it. During my later examinations, I was chided for mixing the chocolate with the whipped cream when the chocolate was too warm, which causes the cream to break. But if the chocolate is too cool it seizes up and hardens mid-blending. It's such a subtle art this pastry, and I am not a subtle person.