Saturday, November 11, 2017

A Savory Winter Squash Tart with Mushrooms & Apples

Over the years I have posted a lot of recipes for savory tarts.  A tender, buttery crust makes an admirable blank canvas for the products of each passing season.   Whether a custard-based, quiche-style tart...or a free form galette...or a simple flat crust topped with cooked vegetables...I love them.   

A selection of local squash...the mottled yellow and green in the center are "Carnival" squash preferred squash for this tart.

This week I will be teaching a class on winter squash and sweet potatoes.  One of my favorite ways to use squash happens to be in a tart...and I will be including a tart in this class.  Most of the time when I put squash in a tart, I leave it in slices or chunks that are roasted (or sautéed) before they are put into the crust.  But this of course isn't the only way to present it and this time I will be turning the squash into a purée—and smearing it onto a flat rectangle of dough where it will act as an edible (and delicious) glue to hold all of the other toppings in place. 

I have posted a couple of other examples of this style of tart...using ricotta instead of squash puree as the "glue."  Both the ricotta and the squash (reinforced with an egg yolk) do a great job of holding the other components in place.  I particularly like using the squash though.  When making such a thin tart, you need to get a lot of bang for your flavor buck in the individual components...and the squash adds a lot of flavor.  It is also the perfect counterpoint to the savory mushrooms and sweet tart apples that make up the rest of the topping.   

If the combination of mushrooms and apples strikes you as odd, I encourage you to try it in this tart.  I think I first encountered this combination in a traditional chicken dish from Normandy.  The dish—Poulet Vallée d'Auge—is a classic French sauté of chicken cooked in stock, cider and cream...with mushrooms and apples.  Every time I eat it I am amazed by the subtlety and balance of this pairing.  Both the apples and the mushrooms are enhanced by it.  The dish would not be the same if it were garnished with just the apples...or just the mushrooms.  It is the same with the tart.

With a small green salad this tart makes a wonderful light dinner...or satisfying lunch.  But since we are on the verge of our annual holiday party season, I have also included instructions at the bottom of the recipe for rolling the crust and building the tart in such a way that you can cut small squares that make a perfect finger food.  Since all of the components (the crust, squash puree, sautéed apples, sautéed mushrooms and candied pepitas) can be made ahead, it would be the perfect thing with which to greet your Thanksgiving guests.  Simply make the components at your leisure in the day or two preceding the feast.  Then, on Thanksgiving morning, build the tarts and place them on a sheet pan in the fridge, baking them as oven space allows, and as close to the arrival of your guests as you can.

Let the holiday cooking and feasting begin. 

Savory Winter Squash Tart with Mushrooms & Apples

1 recipe pâte brisée (below)
1 egg, separated (yolk and white both reserved)
1 T. butter
1 medium shallot, about 1 oz., minced
1 clove of garlic, minced
1/2 t. minced fresh rosemary
3/4 c. (185 g.) Roasted Winter Squash purée (see below—I prefer Carnival Squash in these tartlets)
1/3 c. (1 oz.) finely grated Parmesan
1 large apple (7 to 8 oz.)—something that is sweet-tart and that holds its shape when a Braeburn...or a Pink Lady
1 T. butter (more as needed)
6 oz. crimini (or other favorite) mushrooms, sliced 1/4- to 1/3-inch thick
1 T. olive oil (more as needed)
1 T. minced flat leaf parsley
4 oz. goat cheese
3 to 4 T. Candied Pepitas (see below)
Salt & Pepper, to taste

On a lightly floured surface, roll the pastry out into a thin (1/8- to 3/16-inch thick) rectangle that measures at least 10- by 14-inches.  Place on a parchment-lined baking sheet and chill for at least 30 minutes.  Before baking trim the pastry sheet to a 9- by 13-inch rectangle.  

Prick all over with a fork.  Beat the egg white until foamy and loose.  Brush the whole surface of the pastry with the beaten egg white and return to the refrigerator until ready to use.

In a small sauté pan, melt the butter over medium heat.  Add the shallots, garlic and rosemary and cook until very tender and beginning to caramelize.  Let cool.

In a medium-sized bowl, combine the squash purée, Parmesan, cooled shallot mixture and yolk.  Season to taste with salt & pepper.  Set aside.

Peel, quarter and core the apple.  Cut each quarter into 5 or 6 lengthwise slices (about 1/4- to 1/3-inch thick).  Sauté the apples in the butter until they are golden and just tender.  (Choose a sauté pan—preferably non-stick—that is just large enough to hold the apple slices in a snug single layer.  Start over medium-high heat, letting the butter melt and waiting to add the apples until the foam subsides.  Toss/turn the apples occasionally and reduce the heat if the apples are browning too much/too quickly.)  Set aside.

If the apples were sautéed in a non-stick pan, wipe out the pan and set it back over high heat.  If not, set a non-stick sauté pan (one that is just large enough to hold the mushrooms in a snug single layer) over high heat.  When the pan is hot, add a tablespoon of olive oil.  Add the mushrooms.  Sauté until the mushrooms start to brown—about 2 minutes.  Add a good pinch of salt and continue to sauté, reducing the heat if the mushrooms threaten to burn...but still maintaining an active sizzle, until the mushrooms are tender and browned...about 5 minutes total.  Remove from the heat and add the parsley.  Transfer the mushrooms to the plate with the apples.  Fold the apples and mushrooms together.  Season to taste with salt & pepper.

When ready to bake the tart, preheat the oven to 375° and adjust the rack to the lower third of the oven.  While the oven heats, build the tart.  Spread the squash mixture over the chilled crust, leaving a half inch border of crust visible all the way around.  

Scatter the apples and mushrooms evenly over the squash.  

Crumble the goat cheese over all.  (The tart may be made a few hours ahead to this point.  Cover and chill.)

Bake the tart on the lowest rack until the cheese is tipped with gold and the edges and bottom crust are golden brown—about 25 to 30 minutes.  Slide the cooked tart onto a wire rack and scatter over some of the candied pepitas, pressing lightly if necessary to help the seeds adhere to the cheese.  Cut and serve warm.  Serves 4 to 6 as an appetizer or light entrée with a salad of baby lettuces or arugula. 

Variation:  If you would like to make this tart into small passed appetizer portions, instead of cutting the sheet of dough into one large rectangle, cut it into three 5- by 9-inch rectangles.  Top the smaller rectangles exactly as you would the large, using a third of each of the components for each smaller rectangle.  Bake as for the large.  To serve, cut each rectangle in half lengthwise and then crosswise four or five times to make 8 to 10 small rectangles out of each tart.  Because each small rectangle will have been cut from the edge of the tart, each piece will be more stable and it will be easy to pick up with the fingers (you will have a total of 24 to 30 rectangles from the whole recipe).

Candied Pepitas:  Place 1/2 t. fennel seed and 1/8 t. coriander seed in a medium sauté pan and toast over medium heat.  When fragrant, transfer to a plate to cool.  Grind in a mortar and pestle.   In a small bowl, combine 1 T. sugar, the toasted fennel & coriander, 1/8 t. cinnamon, a pinch of cayenne and a generous pinch of salt.  Melt 2 teaspoons of butter in a medium sauté pan set over medium heat.  Add 1/2 c. raw pumpkin seeds and toss to coat in the butter.  Sprinkle the sugar mixture over the nuts and toss to coat.  Continue to cook, stirring and tossing until the pumpkin seeds are popping and lightly colored.  Remove the pan from the heat.  Wait 30 seconds.  Drizzle a teaspoon of honey over and toss to coat.  Spread the nuts on a plate to cool. 

(Candied Pepitas adapted from Sunday Suppers at Lucques, by Suzanne Goin)

To Roast a Winter Squash for a Purée: Preheat oven to 375° to 400°.  Halve the winter squash.  Scoop out the seeds and discard.  Place the squash on a baking sheet and brush with olive oil or melted butter.  Season with salt and pepper.   Place the squash in the oven and roast until fork tender and caramelized in spots—about an hour.  When the squash is cool enough to handle, scoop the flesh away from the skin with a spoon.  Purée the flesh in the food processor or pass through a food mill fitted with the fine disc.  A 2 pound squash will produce a scant 2 cups of purée, or about a pound.  Depending on the desired use of the purée, the butter or oil with which the squash is brushed prior to roasting may be augmented with any number of things—honey, molasses, maple syrup or balsamic vinegar—alone or in combination.  If you prefer that the squash not caramelize during the roasting process, either cover with foil or oil the pan, add a splash of water and roast the squash with the cut surfaces down. 

1 1/2 c. all-purpose flour (6 oz.)
3/8 t. salt
9 T. cold unsalted butter, sliced 1/4-inch thick (4 1/2 oz.)
3 to 4 1/2 T. ice water

Combine the flour and the salt in a medium-sized bowl.  Rub the butter into the flour until the mixture has the look of cornmeal and peas. Drizzle 3 T. ice water over the flour/butter mixture.  Using your hands, fluff the mixture until it begins to clump, adding more water if necessary.  Turn the dough out onto a counter and form into a mound.  Using the heel of your hand, gradually push all of the dough away from you in short forward strokes, flattening out the lumps.  Continue until all of the dough is flat.  Using a bench scraper, scrape the dough off the counter, forming it into a single clump as you do.  Form the finished dough into a thick rectangle.  Wrap in plastic wrap.  Chill for at least 30 minutes.

Printable Recipe

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Dandelion Greens... In a Gratin with White Beans, Tomatoes & Garlic Sausage

All summer long I have noticed that one of the growers at my farmers' market has had dandelion greens for sale at their stall.  I have intended several times to grab a bunch, but for some reason I never did.  But a couple of weeks ago, I finally remembered to take a minute to ask about them. 

The variety they are growing is a red ribbed Italian heirloom—a member of the chicory family.  They told me that like other members of this family, the dandelion greens can be quite bitter and they have found that they are best when cooked.  Since I love some of the other chicories (endive, frisée and escarole), I bought a bunch.  When treated properly, the bitter edge of these lettuces and greens can be delicious and interesting.  It's just a matter of combining them with things that will balance and compliment the bitterness.  Judicious use of acidity (tomato, citrus, vinegar, etc.), salt (cured meats, anchovy, olives, etc.) and fat (fatty meats, olive oil, etc.) can turn something that is one dimensionally bitter into something that has delicious complexity and flavor. 

The dandelion greens that I purchased—with their ruby colored ribs—reminded me of chard and beet greens...both of which can also be slightly bitter (although not as bitter as chicory).  In the fall and winter I love pairing these kinds of greens with bland starchy things...  Things like polenta, potatoes and white beans.

Considering all this, I decided to use my dandelion greens in a French-style shell bean gratin.  Beans and greens are one of my favorite food combinations.  Whether combined in a soup...or the gratin...the greens that are used for a preparation like this are given ample cooking time to sort of "give up" their bitterness.

When I have prepared gratins like this in the past, I have occasionally included some optional tomato.  Their acidity serves to brighten the blandness of the beans and can be a nice addition.  In the case of my gratin with the dandelion greens, the acidity of the tomato seemed like an essential.

Finally, I added some salty, fatty, garlic sausages to the mix.  Not only did they provide a perfect foil for the dandelion greens, they turned what I have always considered a side dish into a satisfying entrée.   I'm certain you could omit the sausage...but since this makes a fantastic one dish meal when you include it, I'm not sure you would want to. 

One final observation about this gratin:  As you look at the image of the gratin before it goes into the oven and compare it to the image of the finished, baked gratin, you will be struck with how beautiful the unbaked one is.  You might be tempted when you make it to just serve it before baking it.  After all, all of the ingredients are cooked, so why not serve the more beautiful version?  And while I know the unbaked version would be good, it will lack the delicious intermingling of flavors that happens during the baking process.  Just like a good stew or braise that tastes even better after it has had a day to sit, so the baking process of the gratin produces a richness of flavor that can't be matched in the unbaked version.  Besides, making this simple medley of beans, greens, tomatoes and sausage into a gratin allows you to work aheadsomething that is a huge bonus for anyone who cooks.  

I couldn't believe how delicious and flavorful my gratin was.  I don't know if it was the addition of the dandelion greens...or simply the combination of a few perfect flavor partners, but I will definitely be making it again.  And I will certainly be making a point in the future to find more ways to serve dandelion greens at my table. 

Gratin of White Beans with Dandelion Greens & Garlic Sausage

1 cup Great Northern beans, soaked over-night
6 T. Olive Oil, divided
1 well-branched sprig of thyme
1/2 medium onion (red or yellow), finely diced
2 to 3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1/2 T. minced Thyme
1/2 c. diced tomatoes (can use canned plum or a 6 oz. vine ripe, peeled, seeded neatly diced)
1 bunch of Dandelion greens, stems cut off where the leaves start (discard the stems—you should have a scant 2 oz. trimmed greens), leaves and remaining tender ribs cut cross-wise into 1/2-inch wide ribbons and thoroughly rinsed

6 to 8 oz. garlic sausage, browned and sliced into fat chunks on a slight diagonal
1/2 to 3/4 cup toasted breadcrumbs (see below)

Drain and rinse the beans.  Place them in a large saucepan and cover with fresh water by 2 inches.  Bring to a boil.  Lower the heat and skim off the foam that has risen to the surface.  Add 2 T. of olive oil and a sprig of thyme.  Cook the beans at a gentle simmer, stirring occasionally, until the beans are tender.  Or, place the soaked, drained beans in a shallow gratin, drizzle with the olive oil and add a sprig of thyme.  Cover with boiling water by an inch, cover the pan with a tight fitting lid, or a piece of foil.  Transfer to a 325° oven and bake until tender.  Whether you cook the beans on the stove top or in the oven, they will take about an hour and 15 minutes to cook.  Add salt to taste when the beans are half cooked.  Beans may be cooked ahead.  Cool the beans in their cooking liquid.

To prepare the gratin, warm 2 T. of olive oil in a wide sauté pan.  Add the onion, minced thyme and some salt.  Gently sweat the onions until they are tender and translucent (about 10 minutes).  Add the garlic and continue to cook until fragrant.  Add the tomatoes and cook for 5 minutes.  Add the greens along with a ladleful of the bean cooking liquid and cook until the greens are wilted and tender. Taste and salt as necessary.

Drain the beans and save the cooking liquid.  Add the beans to the onion mixture and toss to distribute all of the ingredients evenly.  Heat through.  Transfer to a 1 1/2 to 2 quart gratin (or other shallow baking dish).  If using, tuck the sausages into the beans so that they are level with the surface.  Ladle over enough bean liquid to almost cover.  Drizzle the remaining 2 T. of olive oil over the gratin.  (You may prepare the gratin to this point up to a day in advance.  Refrigerate.  Bring to room temperature before continuing.)  Cover the top of the gratin with the toasted breadcrumbs.  Bake the gratin in a 350° oven until bubbling and golden brown on top (about 45 minutes).  Check the gratin occasionally while it bakes.  If it appears to be drying out too much, add more bean liquid.  If not browned to your liking when it is bubbling and hot through, briefly run under the broiler until the crumbs are tinged with golden brown.  Serves 2 to 3 

Notes & Variations:
  • Use a precooked sausage such as Kielbasa, Linguiça or Aidells Roasted Garlic & Gruyère Chicken Sausage (my favorite) 
  • To make a simple side dish of beans and greens, simply omit the sausage. Without the sausage, the gratin will serve 4 to 6 as a side dish. 
  • You may use any kind of white bean that you prefer...Cannellini, Flageolet, etc. Just be aware that not all varieties will cook in the same amount of time as the Great Northerns. 
  • You may use greens other than dandelions. A small bunch (or half a bunch, if you prefer) of chard or kale (any kind) will work. If you use a whole bunch, you will have about twice as much trimmed weight as with the dandelions. For the both chard and kale, remove all of the ribs/stems. The chard may be added exactly as the dandelions. The kale should be blanched since it takes much longer to cook. To blanch it, drop the clean, trimmed and sliced kale in boiling, salted water and cook until tender. Drain and spread on a baking sheet to cool. Add to the onion and tomatoes and heat through. 
  • To make toasted breadcrumbs, use the food processor to process sliced/torn "day-old" bread (crusts removed if they are very hard) until bread is in uniform soft crumbs. Spread crumbs on a rimmed cookie sheet and “toast” in a 350 degree oven until golden brown and dry, stirring occasionally (about 10 minutes). Drizzle crumbs with olive oil and toss to combine. Crumbs can be used immediately or cooled and stored airtight at room temperature for a week or so...or frozen for longer.
  • Recipe is easily doubled. Use a 3 quart gratin/shallow baking dish. 

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Fall Fruit Compote of Wine-Poached Pears & Dried Fruits

Occasionally I teach a class on autumn desserts.  It includes a nice variety of classics—filled with fall ingredients—that everyone loves...fruit, chocolate and nut filled tarts, a simple cake (featuring sweet potatoes!), and a light and ethereal bread pudding.  I think everyone expects to like all of these things.  But the sleeper hit of the class is always a simple dish of poached fall fruits.  I'm not sure why (perhaps it conjures images of stewed prunes?), but people are always a bit dubious when they see this recipe in their packet.  Then they taste it....

I have not posted this recipe before because I can't make it for you...thus giving you the opportunity to taste it without going to the effort of making it yourself.  I can only ask you to trust me when I say that this is a seriously elegant and delicious dessert.  It is sweet...but sophisticated—definitely a dessert for grown-ups.  I love it all by itself...with maybe a little bit of mascarpone whipped cream...and perhaps a platter of biscotti

If you have never poached fruit, you should give it a tryit is an easy technique to learn.  I wrote a basics post on how to poach pears (for a tart) a few years ago.  The recipe I'm posting today uses the exact same method to begin.  Then, after the pears are done, the dried fruits are steeped—and plumped—in the poaching liquid.  They add rich flavor and beautiful color. 

Depending on the ripeness of the pears (and thus how long you have to cook them), you may need to reduce the poaching syrup by simmering briefly after all of the fruits are finished.  But be careful not to overdo it.  The final syrup should be a light and fluid nectar—perfect for sipping from a spoon...or for dunking those biscotti

Once you try this recipe, you will want to make it for your friends and family.  If you feel the need to tempt people into sampling it, serve it with a slice of pound cake (everyone loves pound cake).  Any good pound cake will do, but I'm particularly partial to an Italian one—Amor Polenta—that I posted a few years ago.  The almond and cornmeal are a fantastic match for the pears and dried fruits.  You can tell your guests that the fruit is a garnish.  Once they taste it they will realize that in this case the cake is definitely the supporting player...and the fruit is the star of the show. 

Fall Fruit Compote of Wine-Poached Pears & Dried Fruit

1 (750 ml) bottle white wine
3 c. sugar
1 vanilla bean, split and scraped
1 cinnamon stick
3 or 4 whole cloves
3 or 4 strips (3- by 1/2-inch) of lemon zest
3 or 4 strips (3- by 1/2-inch) of orange zest
6 firm but ripe pears, peeled, halved (or quartered) and cored
1 c. dried figs, hard stems trimmed
1 c. dried apricots
3/4 c. pitted prunes
1/2 c. dried tart cherries

In a saucepan large enough to hold all of the pears, combine the wine, 3 c. water, sugar and flavorings.  Bring this to a boil and simmer for 5 minutes.  While the poaching liquid cooks, cut a round of parchment that is slightly larger than the pan and cut a hole in the center (this will act as a "lid" and help keep the fruit fully submerged in the liquid—it is called a cartouche).  

When the syrup is ready, add the pears, press the parchment round to the surface of the liquid, lower the heat and barely simmer until the tip of a knife will go in and out without resistance.  Cooking time varies greatly depending on the ripeness of the pears—start checking after 10 minutes for very ripe pears.  Using a slotted spoon, transfer the pears to a platter. 

Return the poaching liquid to a simmer and add the dried fruits.   Simmer gently until the dried fruits are tender (they will soften and some will swell slightly)—5 to 10 minutes or so. 

Depending on how ripe the pears were the liquid may need to be reduced a bit.  If you would like to reduce the poaching liquid at all, lift out the dried fruits and add them to the plate with the pears.  Return the poaching liquid to the pan and simmer until it has thickened slightly (but no thicker than maple syrup...or a dessert wine). 

Remove the pan from the heat and return the pears and dried fruits to the pan of poaching liquid.  Cool and store the pears and dried fruits in the poaching liquid. 

Serve the compote chilled.  Remove the vanilla bean, cinnamon stick, cloves and zests before serving.  I like to halve the figs lengthwise before serving to expose their lovely interior.  If the prunes and/or apricots are especially large, you might consider halving them as well.

Whether I am serving this as a stand alone dessert—or to accompany a slice of cake—I like to serve it with mascarpone whipped cream sweetened with some of the poaching liquid (see below).

(Recipe adapted from Barefoot Contessa Parties!, by Ina Garten)

Maspcarpone Whipped Cream:  Place 8 oz. of mascarpone in a mixing bowl along with a cup of heavy cream and 1/2 cup of poaching liquid.  Whisk until softly mounding. (To make a smaller—or larger amount—just remember you need 1 T. of poaching liquid for every ounce of mascarpone and ounce of cream.)

Monday, October 2, 2017

Nancy's Queso Fundido ...with Goat Cheese & Pepitas

A little over a year ago I sampled something called queso fundido at the home of my friend...and fellow chef...Nancy.  Since Nancy's food is unfailingly delicious I always look forward to gathering around her table.  But beyond that, Nancy has a wide experience of ethnic foods that I lack.  Frequently she will serve something that I have never heard of, much less tasted.  This simple and fantastic little dish of melted cheese was one of those things.

Many people, myself included, have had Nachos—a sort of dumbed-down, processed food variation of classic Mexican queso fundido.  But the dish I had on that particular evening was definitely not an ordinary platter of Nachos.  When Nancy stepped out onto her patio that evening with a piping hot cast iron skillet filled with sizzling cheeses (a nice Monterey Jack and some creamy Goat cheese) and freshly made rajas (strips of onions and roasted poblano peppers with garlic and oregano), studded with crunchy, toasted pepitas, I knew I was looking at something special.  It did not disappoint.  I could have made a meal out of it, but I knew there was more deliciousness to come (Salmon with a tomato and green olive relish, if I recall correctly), so I held back.  But I had to have the recipe.   Luckily for all of you, Nancy graciously shared it with me.

I have since discovered that queso fundido is not as unknown to most Americans as it was to me.  Many, many recipes are available on line.  Nancy's recipe is unusual, first and foremost because of her inclusion of goat cheese.  Most recipes use one (or more) of several good melting cheeses:  Monterey Jack, mild Cheddar, Wisconsin Brick, Chihuahua, Asadero, etc.  But the inclusion of goat cheese into the mix adds a fantastic tang...and also cuts down on what I consider to be the objectionable oily-ness and stretchiness that melted cheeses can sometimes have.  Her other unusual addition is the final topping of toasted pepitas.  They add great flavor and wonderful texture and the dish wouldn't be the same without them.

The rajas are a fairly standard addition.  Nancy's recipe for them follows a Rick Bayless recipe fairly closely.  He calls this sautéed mixture of onions and roasted poblanos an essential element of Mexican food and cooking—something that can be used as a filling for tacos, an addition to soups/stews, an accompaniment for grilled meats, a filling for cheese quesadillas, etc.  They are wonderful in the queso fundido, and they are frankly the reason that I suddenly started thinking about this dish again, one year later. 

There are of course a lot of other delicious things to do with poblanos, but a couple of weeks ago when I noticed that fresh poblanos were abundant at my farmers' market, this was this dish I wanted to make.  The weather is cooling down...and a dish of hot cheese seemed like a pretty fine idea.  Since peppers freeze well in their roasted form, I bought more than I needed so I would have them handy throughout the fall and winter months when queso fundido would be the perfect addition to a family game night...or a Sunday afternoon football party...or even for a simple evening meal. 

If you have never prepared roasted poblanos, follow the method I outline for roasting and peeling bell peppers on my red pepper and potato pizza post from a few years ago.  If you have access to plastic gloves, it might be a good idea to wear them when you're peeling and seeding the peppers.  Poblanos are sort of mild to medium hot and if you handle enough of them, your hands will definitely feel it.  If you don't have gloves, wash your hands well with soap and water after working with the peppers and before doing anything else.  

And, while on the subject of heat, definitely sample your roasted poblanos before you use them in your recipe so you will know if they happen to be extra hot.  I purchased an extra fiery batch of them last year.  I knew they were hot and still made my queso fundido with the full amount.  It was delicious, but would not have been acceptable to anyone who is sensitive to heat.  If the ones you buy are super hot, you might consider cutting back on the quantity that you add. 

To freeze your roasted peppers, simply lay the roasted and peeled peppers flat, stacking them and  laying a piece of plastic wrap in between each pepper.  Slide the stack of peppers into a Ziplock bag, press out the air and lay the bag on a flat surface until the peppers are frozen hard.  By separating each of the peppers in this way, you will be able take out as few or as many as you like when you want to thaw them.

Not particularly photogenic...but oh so tasty....
Every time I have made queso fundido I have served it exactly as Nancy did...with a big pile of crunchy tortilla chips. I like it this way whether I'm eating it as a shared appetizer...or for dinner with a green salad.  But it also makes a wonderful filling for soft tortillas...or a topping for toast (sort of an open faced and very savory grilled cheese sandwich).  However you decide to serve it, be sure to make more than you think you and your friends will eat, as it is addictively delicious.

Nancy's Queso Fundido with Goat Cheese

1 lb. fresh poblanos (about 6 medium)
2 T. olive oil, plus more for peppers
1 medium yellow or white onion (8 oz.), sliced 1/4-inch thick
Salt and pepper
3 large cloves of garlic, minced
1/2 t. dried oregano
1/3 to 1/2 c. heavy cream, crème fraiche, or Mexican crema
1/2 lb. Monterey Jack, coarsely shredded
1/2 lb. soft fresh goat cheese, crumbled
1/4 to 1/3 c. toasted pepitas (see note)
Tortilla chips...or warm, soft tortillas

Rub the poblanos with olive oil and place on a baking sheet.  Broil the peppers, turning as the skin chars, until they are blackened and blistered all over.  Set aside to cool.  When cool enough to handle, remove and discard the blackened skin, the stems and cores, white ribs, and seeds.  (Use gloves if you hands are sensitive to the heat of chiles.)  Cut into 1/4-inch strips and set aside.

In a heavy oven proof skillet (cast iron is perfect) with a 10-inch cooking surface (see note), heat the oil over moderate heat.  Add the onions along with a pinch of salt and cook until soft and beginning to caramelize—about 5 to 10 minutes.  

Add the garlic and oregano and cook just until fragrant (less than a minute).  Add the poblanos, tossing to coat in the onion/garlic mixture.  Heat through and season to taste with salt & pepper.  If you are working ahead for a party, you may stop at this point and set the mixture aside at room temperature for a couple of hours.  If you are working further ahead than that, scrape the mixture into a container and chill.  Return to the pan and heat through before continuing. 

Add the cream to the hot rajas and bring to a simmer (this will happen almost immediately).  Remove from the heat and scatter the Monterey Jack over all, followed by the goat cheese. 

Place the skillet under the broiler (set on high) and broil until the jack cheese is melted, the goat is beginning to be tinged with gold and the cheese is bubbling at the edges.  Sprinkle with the pepitas and serve immediately with tortilla chips or warm soft tortillas.  Serves 4 to 8 (depending on appetites and  other items being served).

(Recipe adapted from The Elote Cafe Cookbook by Jeff Smedstad)

  • Toast the pepitas in a dry skillet set over medium high heat. Cook, tossing and stirring constantly until the pepitas are browned in spots and slightly puffed. Transfer to a cool plate. 
  • If you have roasted poblanos in your freezer (and don't know their original fresh weight), weigh out about 7 oz. of the roasted peppers for this recipe. 
  • A wide skillet (10-inch surface) is the best thing for this recipe. It keeps the layer of cheese thin so it will melt quickly and completely without becoming unpleasantly oily and stretchy. If you would like to make half a recipe, us a skillet with a 7-inch cooking surface. 
  • If you would like to make open faced sandwiches, toast slices of a sturdy artisanal loaf and spread on a baking sheet. Before adding any of the cheese, divide the creamy rajas over the bread slices and top with the cheeses. Broil until melted and bubbling. Scatter pepitas over and serve. 
Printable Version

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Applesauce Spice Cake for my Mother's Birthday...with Two Different Frostings

A few years ago I posted the recipe for my father's favorite birthday cake on what would have been his 75th birthday. Regular visitors might wonder why I have never posted my mother's preferred cake. The reason for this is that my mother doesn't really have a specific favorite. I associate white cake with butterscotch frosting with her birthdays from when I was a kid. But I don't think that this is really her favorite cake. It is true that the butterscotch frosting is one of her favorite things, and probably her most frequently requested frosting, but more often than not she surprises me with her choice of cake. This year when I asked what she would like to have she requested an applesauce cake.

I love applesauce cake. It falls into the same class of cakes as pumpkin (as well as zucchini, carrot, and banana) in that it is reliably moist and flavorful. And like pumpkin and carrot cakes, it traditionally includes a healthy dose of the autumn- and holiday-appropriate spices (cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, cloves, and sometimes ginger) that everyone seems to love so much. All of these kinds of cakes are friendly and versatile—they can be dressed up into frosted layer cakes for birthdays...or left plain and served as an everyday dessert or as a simple accompaniment to an afternoon cup of coffee or tea. 

I even had a good recipe for applesauce cake at the ready. I developed it a few years ago using the recipe my mom made when I was growing up (from an old cookbook of my mother's called Mary Meade's Country Ruth Ellen Church...see note) as my starting point. Not only is it a delicious cake, but it goes particularly well with cream cheese frosting (which I know my mom likes) and would allow me to get through the year without having to prepare any butterscotch frosting.

I am always happy when I don't have to make that frosting. It isn't that I don't like it. It is in fact quite delicious and goes well with white and yellow well as spice cake. I have even heard of serving it with chocolate cake, which frankly sounds fantastic since the frosting is very rich and sweet and would be served well by the bitter edge of a good chocolate cake. It is actually a classic frosting...and a southern favorite. Sometimes called caramel...or penuche...frosting, I have never heard it called butterscotch frosting by any family other than my own. But since it is rich with butter and brown sugar, it counts as butterscotch in my book. 

Despite its deliciousness, this frosting is a bit of a thorn in my side. It is an ostensibly simple recipe (simplified from versions that require the use of a candy thermometer and the making of a sugar syrup) with rather vague instructions.  One is led to believe that nothing could be easier than making this frosting, when in fact making it is fraught with opportunities for failure ranging from a frosting that refuses to set up (and slides right off of the cake), to one that will suddenly turn into an unusable, cement-like mass. I have always intended to seek out a true recipe for a caramel or penuche frosting (made with the exacting specifications of a candy thermometer), but the fact of the matter is, this is the recipe that my mother loves, so this is the one I want to make for her. And as it happens, it is the one she requested to go with her applesauce cake this year. 

And I have to admit, it was a smashing combination. Everyone...but most especially my mother...really enjoyed it. So I am including the recipe in my post...with instructions that are as exact as I can make them. But I am also including a recipe for the cream cheese frosting that I love to serve on this cake. I think the cake would probably be pretty fine with a plain vanilla buttercream too.

Finally, because I have a preference for single layer cakes that are wide and low, I am giving the recipe in the form that I usually make it—that is, in a quantity that is perfect for a single layer, 10-inch round. If you want to make a two layer cake (for a birthday, for example), you will need to multiply the recipe by one and one half and bake it in two 9-inch layers. The frosting recipes will similarly need to be multiplied by one and one half. 

The cake was almost completely devoured at my mother's party. It was so good that I prepared it again so I could post it here (and so I could have more!). It is a perfect cake for autumn and if you make it, I think you will love matter which frosting you choose.

(Note on why Mary Meade's cookbook is written by Ruth Ellen Church. From the Chicago Tribune Oct 3, 2001: "Mary Meade was the pen name used by five food editors of the Chicago Tribune from 1930 to 1974. Ruth Ellen Church was the longest tenured food editor, from 1936 to 1974. She published recipes, books and booklets under her own name as well as the Mary Meade pen name. When Church retired, so did Mary Meade." My mother's book was published in 1964...and I'm guessing many of my most beloved childhood tastes come from this book. I used to love to look at the pictures in this book.)

Applesauce Spice Cake

240 g (2 c.) all-purpose flour
1 t. baking soda
1/2 t. salt
1 t. cinnamon
1/2 t. ground cloves
1/4 t. nutmeg
1/2 t. allspice
170 g. (3/4 c. or 1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
300 g. (1 1/2 c.) sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature
366 g. (1 1/2 c.) unsweetened applesauce
1 t. vanilla

Grease a 10-inch round cake pan, line with a round of parchment and grease the parchment.  Flour the pan.  Set aside.  Sift the dry ingredients together and set aside.  

Using a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter with the sugar until light and fluffy, stopping the mixer once or twice to scrape down the sides.  This will take 3 to 5 minutes at medium-high speed, depending on the ambient temperature of the room.  

Beat in the eggs one at a time, scraping down the sides after each addition.  Increase the speed to medium-high and briefly beat until the mixture lightens in color and expands in volume.  Fold in the dry ingredients (by hand or on the lowest speed with the paddle attachments) alternately with the applesauce (add the vanilla with the first half of the applesauce), beginning and ending with the dry ingredients. 

 Two 9-inch layers (1 1/2 times the recipe), ready for the oven...
Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top.  Bake in a preheated 350° oven until golden, springy to the touch and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean—about 35 to 45 minutes.  Let the cake cool in the pan for 10 to 15 minutes.  Loosen the sides of the cake by running a thin knife around the edge of the pan.  Turn the cake out of the pan.  

Cool the cake on a wire rack.  Frost with Maple Cream Cheese or Butterscotch Frosting.  Serves 12.

Variation:  This recipe makes a beautiful layer cake.  Make 1 1/2 times the recipe and bake in 2 9-inch layers (they will take about 5 minutes less time to bake than the large 10-inch cake).  You will also need to multiply the frosting recipe by 1 1/2 so you will have enough to fill in between the layers.

Maple Cream Cheese Frosting

100 g. (7 T.) butter, room temperature
100 g. (1/2 c.) packed golden brown sugar
85 ml. (6 T.) real maple syrup
8 oz. cream cheese, cut into 8 cubes

Using a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter with the brown sugar until smooth.  With the mixer running, drizzle in the maple syrup.  Increase the speed to medium-high/high and beat until very light and fluffy—5 minutes or so (the color of the mixture will become a very pale beige).  

Add the cream cheese and beat until the frosting is totally smooth and fluffy.   

  • Cream cheese brands vary widely in texture. If yours is stiff/firm straight out of the fridge, let it sit at room temperature until it becomes malleable. I use Kraft's Philadelphia, which seems to always be fairly malleable at refrigerator temperature. 
  • This recipe makes a very light and fluffy frosting. If you prefer a denser, more traditional cream cheese frosting (with maple), use the one from my Chocolate Gingerbread post
(Recipe adapted from Ottolenghi, The Cookbook, by Sami Tamimi and Yotam Ottolenghi)

My Mom's Butterscotch Frosting

1 stick butter (4 oz.)
1 c. packed dark brown sugar (200 g.)
1/4 c. milk (60 g.)
1 3/4 to 2 c. (170 to 225 g.) sifted powdered sugar

Place the butter in a medium sauce pan and melt over moderate heat.  Add the brown sugar.  Bring the mixture to a boil over moderate to moderately high heat, stirring to make sure it doesn't scorch.  Boil for 2 minutes, stirring constantly.  Add the milk and return the mixture to the boil.  Remove from the heat; cool to room temperature. 

Scrape the cooled syrup into the bowl of a stand mixer.  Add 1 3/4 c./170 g. of the powdered sugar and mix using the paddle attachment until the sugar is absorbed.  Beat briefly.  If the mixture isn't thick enough to spread, add the remaining powdered sugar a spoonful at a time, beating until thick enough to spread.  Use immediately—the frosting will continue to set up as it sits.

  • You must sift the powdered sugar or you will have lumps in the finished frosting.
  • The syrup must be cool or you will end up adding too much powdered sugar and the frosting will suddenly set up like cement (much swearing will ensue). 
  • You must use the frosting immediately when it is ready. It should be soft and spreadable when you start. DO NOT LET IT SIT FOR ANY LENGTH OF TIME once it is ready. Get it on the cake as quickly as you are able (have everything ready to go...cake on the platter, spatulas/palette knifes/etc.). Put it where you want it...swirling it attractively as you go. It is unlikely you will be able to go back over frosted areas and add decorative swirls (unless you are experienced and fast). This frosting crystallizes and sets up into a (delicious) brown sugar fudge very quickly...failure to get it out of the bowl and onto the cake quickly will result in much frustration/bad language/etc.
(Recipe adapted from "Quick Caramel Frosting" in Good Housekeeping Cookbook edited by Dorothy B. Marsh, copyright 1955)