Sunday, November 22, 2015

Pimiento Cheese—a Southern Classic for Thanksgiving...and a bonus recipe for Marbled Pumpkin Cheesecake Brownies

Pimiento Cheese was always a part of my maternal grandmother's Thanksgiving Day relish tray.  Stuffed into little celery sticks, it—along with the watermelon rind pickles—was high on my list of things to avoid.  My dad loved it.  Not because it was any good—I think my maternal grandmother was purchasing hers from the grocery store deli counter by the time I came along.  Rather, I would bet my dad's enjoyment of said substance rested in nostalgia...for the delicious homemade pimiento cheese that his mother apparently made when he was growing up.  I still think there are better crudités than celery sticks...but I have learned to love pimiento cheese....the real (homemade) thing, that is.

My first inkling that there was something to love about pimiento cheese came around Thanksgiving of 1999.  In the November issue of Gourmet that year, James Villas wrote a wonderful little ode to his mother's version.  I was intrigued.  He made me want to try it.  But I chalked this up to fine writing and went along in my pimiento cheese avoiding ways.

Then, several years later I received a copy of southern chef Frank Stitt's first cookbook.  Stitt is one of my favorite chefs.  And the fact that he thought highly enough of this traditional Southern dish to give it space in his first book (along with even more space to write his own short ode to the stuff) gave me pause:  Perhaps there was something more to pimiento cheese than nostalgia?  So I made a batch.  What can I say?  I get it now.  It is addictively delicious.

I have continued to make Frank Stitt's version of pimiento cheese.  There are other versions...but this one is extremely good.  And it includes what I think (as a non-connoisseur) are the important elements.  First and foremost you need a good, sharp cheddar cheese.  Villas recommends New York and Vermont Cheddars, but any delicious, well-aged cheddar that you love would be good.  I use a mix of Sharp Oregon Tillamook and Cabot's "Seriously Sharp" White from Vermont. 

Next, you need excellent mayonnaise.  I like Hellman's...but if you're from the south, Duke's is apparently the only way to go.  You can obviously make your own too.  Good mayonnaise will add zip and tang...and lovely texture.  Stitt's version substitutes a little bit of cream cheese for some of the mayo.  (Make sure that these two are smoothly creamed together before adding anything else.)  I think the cream cheese is a nice touch.  But it is possible that an aficionado would consider this heresy. 

Stitt's recipe includes freshly roasted peppers instead of jarred pimientos.  James Villas would give him some disagreement on this point...evidently feeling very strongly about the inclusion of jarred pimientos.  But I can't imagine a jarred product could compete with the firm texture and sweet—slightly charred—flavor of those you roast yourself.  Villas adds further weight to his argument in favor of jarred pimientos by pointing out that the liquid in the jar is the perfect medium for correcting the consistency of an overly stiff pimiento cheese.  But again, I can't begin to believe that this liquid could hold a candle to the sweet and robust flavor of the juices exuded by freshly roasted peppers. 

Lastly, pimiento cheese should have a nice kick.  Stitt's version provides this with a generous amount of freshly ground pepper, cayenne and hot sauce.  Stitt uses white pepper...but I prefer black.  I love the look of the little flecks throughout.  I don't use hot sauce...finding that the black pepper and cayenne give plenty of heat.  But you can...and should....make it as zippy as you like. 

If you look at the recipe you will notice that it specifies that you mix everything together in a stand mixer with a paddle.  I think this works great because it allows you to beat the mixture to a fluffier texture...smoothing the shreds of cheese out a bit at the same time.  But you'll notice that I mixed the cheese in the pictures by hand with a stiff rubber spatula...which works fine too.  (This latter method requires a bit of effort...but if you're going to eat a lot of pimiento cheese, exerting yourself a little bit is probably a good idea.)

You may grate the cheese coarsely...or you prefer.  I like it coarse.  I discovered during a recent Facebook conversation that many people who grew up with pimiento cheese remember their mothers grinding the cheese through an old fashioned, hand crank, meat grinder.  When I looked up Villas' article in Gourmet, I discovered that this was the way his mother made it too.  My own mother—seeing the Facebook conversation—told me that the meat grinder was my dad's mother's implement of choice as well.    

Before I finish, I feel I should point out that the inclusion of half a package of cream cheese in Stitt's recipe turns out to be a bit problematic for me. Cream cheese is not something I eat a lot of.  Other than in pimiento cheese I only use it for a couple of things:  cheesecake and cream cheese frosting.  Most recipes call for 8 oz. increments.  So unless I am making a double batch of pimiento cheese, I end up with half a package of cream cheese taking up space...and eventually going my refrigerator.  This time though, I decided to try and use it up before I forgot about it. 

As I considered what to make, the Marbled Peanut Butter Cheesecake Brownies I made last March immediately came to mind.  They use exactly 4 oz. of cream cheese.  More importantly, they were delicious.  It occurred to me that a seasonal pumpkin version would be a fine thing too.  And it was.  I'm including the recipe so you won't be stuck with that half package of cream cheese either. 

I hope that if you have spent a lifetime avoiding pimiento cheese....or if you have never heard of it until today (if you don't have Southern roots, you might not have)...that you will give it a try.  Thanksgiving a nice big bowl, surrounded by saltine crackers (and celery sticks, if you like)...would be the perfect time.  I don't imagine that there will be any leftovers....but if there are, it makes a fantastic sandwich.  

Once you try it, I predict that you will make it again and again.  I regret that it took me so long to sample it. Sadly, since I was a rather picky child, I have experienced this kind of regret many times.  Even so...I admit it...I would still tread carefully around the watermelon rind pickles....

Miss Verba’s Pimiento Cheese

1/4 lb. cream cheese, softened
1/2 c. homemade or best quality commercial mayonnaise
1 t. freshly ground pepper
1 t. sugar
1/8 t. cayenne pepper
1 lb. sharp cheddar (1/2 sharp orange & 1/2 extra sharp white)—grated (coarse or you prefer)
1 lb. red bell peppers, roasted, peeled, seeded and chopped (1 cup/8 oz.)—peppers and juices reserved separately
Splash of hot sauce, such as Tabasco or Cholula—optional

Place the cream cheese in the bowl of the kitchen aid and paddle until smooth.  Scrape down the sides and add the mayonnaise.  Beat until smooth, scraping down the sides as necessary.  Mix in the pepper, sugar and cayenne.  Add the grated cheese and peppers

and paddle until you have a coarse, creamy and homogenous spread.  At this point, you may add the reserved roasted pepper juices if you like.  The more you beat the mixture, the smoother and fluffier it will should mix until you reach the texture you prefer.  Taste and add hot sauce and/or more cayenne if you would like more heat.  Depending on the cheese you use, you may need to add a couple pinches of salt.  Refrigerate and serve chilled.  (The spread will keep for several days in the refrigerator.)

Makes 3 cups

(Recipe adapted from Frank Stitt's Southern Table)

Marbled Pumpkin Cheesecake Brownies

1/4 c. sugar (50 g.)
1 t. flour
1/2 t. pumpkin pie spice
Pinch of salt
4 oz. cream cheese, softened
1/4 t. vanilla
3 T.  pumpkin purée (45 g.)
1 egg yolk

1/4 lb. (1 stick) unsalted butter
4 oz. bittersweet chocolate (I use Ghirardelli 60%)
2 large eggs
2/3 c. sugar
1 t. vanilla
1/2 c. all-purpose flour (55g.)
1/4 t. salt
3/4 c. toasted pecans, chopped

Butter an 8-inch square baking pan.  Line the pan with parchment paper allowing the parchment to hang over the edges on 2 sides.  Butter the paper.  Flour the pan and set aside.  Preheat the oven to 350°. 

Combine the sugar, flour, pumpkin pie spice and salt.  In a small bowl, beat the cream cheese just to break up.  Add the sugar mixture and work in just until smooth and incorporated.  Add a tablespoon of the pumpkin and blend in.  When it is completely absorbed, add the rest of the pumpkin.  Beat in the vanilla and egg yolk.  Set aside

In a medium saucepan, over low heat, melt the butter and the chocolate.  Set aside to cool for a moment or two. 

In a large bowl, whisk the eggs just to break up.  Whisk in the sugar and the vanilla just until smooth.  Whisk in the salt.  Stir in the cooled chocolate-butter mixture.  Sift the flour into the bowl and fold in.  Fold in 2/3 of the pecans (1/2 cup).

Spread the chocolate batter in the prepared pan.  Dollop the pumpkin-cheese mixture evenly over the chocolate batter in 9 equal portions (a miniature ice cream scoop/cookie scoop works well for this).  

Smooth the dollops slightly so they are more or less level with the chocolate batter.  Marble the two batters together.  Scatter the remaining pecans over the surface.  

Bake until a toothpick comes out just clean—about 30 to 35 minutes.  Cool completely.  

Chill before cutting into small rectangles or squares.  Makes 16 to 24 brownies. 

Sunday, November 15, 2015

A Sweet Potato & Apple Gratin for Thanksgiving

During my first year as a blogger I posted an extensive series of Thanksgiving recipes as we approached the big day.  Because I love the Thanksgiving holiday so much I have continued to add one or two items to this parade of Thanksgiving appropriate recipes every year.  If you are looking for recipes to round out your Thanksgiving spread (for some reason I have never posted any of the components of the main event...turkey, dressing and gravy...maybe this year...), you could probably find almost everything you need right here.

This year I wanted to add another sweet potato dish to the mix.  Sweet potatoes are one of my favorite things on the Thanksgiving table.  They are so delicious...and versatile.  Besides, I want to help convince everyone that there is so much that can be done with them other than drowning them in sugar and topping them with marshmallows.  In past years—because I object so much to this sugar-laden oddity—I have posted two unabashedly savory sweet potato side with turnips and another with mushrooms.  They are both delicious....and each shows the sweet potato off to great advantage.  If you think you don't like sweet potatoes, you should give one of these dishes a try. 

Perhaps to demonstrate that I don't entirely object to sweet potato dishes that emphasize the "sweet" side of this wonderful vegetable, the sweet potato recipe I'm sharing this year is filled with apples and includes a sweet and crunchy streusel topping.  This dish would be a perfect addition to your table if you are trying to wean your family off a version of Thanksgiving sweet potatoes that includes marshmallows.    

The apple portion of this dish is nothing more than a simple, oven-roasted, chunky applesauce.  It is wonderful in combination with the sweet potatoes...but it is so delicious on its own you might want to make more than you need for just this recipe.  You can make any amount you like as long as you choose a dish that holds the apples snug layer—no deeper than one or two apple slices thick.  (If the apples are too sparse, they might burn and dry out...if they are too deeply piled into the dish, you will end up with an applesauce that is thin and watery instead of thick and deeply flavored.)  

The choice of apples is up to you.  If you want a sweeter dish, choose a naturally sweet apple—like Golden Delicious or Gala.  If you want something very tart, choose a Granny Smith.  I find that I like to make it with a mix of apples (a combination of tart Jonathans with sweet Golden Delicious is my favorite)—or an apple with a strong sweet-tart character—like a Braeburn or a Jonagold.  You can ramp up the apple flavor of the gratin even more by sautéing some diced apples and scattering them over the gratin before adding the streusel. 

To prepare the sweet potatoes, simply roast, peel and mash.  I like the texture best if half of the sweet potatoes are puréed until perfectly smooth (in the food processor) and half of them are left as a chunky mash, but you could purée all of them...or none of them...depending on the texture that you prefer.  This simple mash of sweet potatoes is then enhanced with butter and cream and combined with the homemade applesauce.  

If you like, you can stop at this will have a delicious sweet potato-apple purée, which is good not only at Thanksgiving, but it is simple enough for a weeknight meal (and exceptionally fine with a pork chop...or roast chicken).  If the individual components have cooled...or been made ahead...simply reheat in a bain-marie (a bowl set over simmering water) or in the microwave. 

To turn the sweet potato-apple mixture into a gratin, simply transfer it to a buttered, shallow baking dish and top it with the brown sugar streusel.  Serving it this way makes it perfect for Thanksgiving—it adds that almost dessert-like persona that many are looking for in their Thanksgiving sweet potatoes....and, it makes it so that the dish can be made in its entirety ahead of time—only needing to be heated through to make it ready for the table.  If you have ever prepared Thanksgiving dinner before you know just how great it is to have a few things that you can serve that require absolutely nothing from the cook on the day of the meal. 

Over the years I have noticed that the traffic on my blog picks up a bit at the holidays as people begin to do a bit more cooking than usual. If you are visiting for the first time...and are looking for some ideas for your Thanksgiving spread (and you like the look of today's post) should check out my recipe index...or scroll through recipes featuring specific ingredients that interest you (see the sidebar)...or look through old October and November posts....  But I also want to let you know that I have posted a few albums on my Facebook page that feature links to Thanksgiving recipes from previous years.  You'll find lots of ideas for side dishes, appetizers and sweets...all featuring traditional and seasonal ingredients (there's even one album devoted entirely to pumpkin recipes...).   And whether you are new here...or an old friend...I wish you all a wonderful Thanksgiving season...filled with foods you love...and even more importantly, with the people you love.

Sweet Potato Gratin with Apples & Brown Sugar Streusel

1/2 c. brown sugar
1/2 c. flour
1/8 t. salt
4 T. unsalted butter
1/2 c. lightly toasted and coarsely chopped pecans (optional)

1 1/2 lb. apples, peeled, cored & cut into ½-inch wedges
1/2 cup apple cider, apple juice or water
1 T. unsalted butter, cut into pieces
2 T. Brown sugar

4 lbs. sweet potatoes, pricked with a fork
4 T. unsalted butter
1/3 c. heavy cream
1 to 2 T. lemon juice, or to taste
Salt & Pepper to taste

Rub the brown sugar, flour, salt and butter together until the mixture forms clumps.  Add the pecans, if using.

Set aside.  This may be made a day or two ahead—wrap and refrigerate.  Bring to room temperature before using. 

Preheat the oven to 400º.  Place the sweet potatoes in the oven and bake until fork tender—about an hour. 

While the potatoes bake, place apples in a 13x9-inch glass or ceramic baking dish; pour in the cider and distribute the butter evenly.  Sprinkle the brown sugar over all.  Place the pan in the oven and roast until the apples are soft enough to smash with a spoon and the cider is mostly absorbed.  

This will take about 25 to 35 minutes.  Stir the apples half way through the cooking time.  Scrape the apples into a bowl and mash with a potato masher for a chunky purée, or process in the food processor for a smooth purée.  You will have about 1 1/2 cups applesauce.  Set aside.

When the potatoes are done, scoop the flesh out of their skins into a large bowl.  Transfer half of the sweet potatoes to the food processor along with 4 tablespoons of butter.  Purée until smooth.  Add the cream with the machine running.  (If the sweet potatoes seem way to stiff at this point, add a bit more cream...or some milk.) Smash the remaining sweet potatoes with a potato masher or a fork.  Fold in the puréed sweet potatoes and applesauce.  Taste and season with salt and pepper.  If the mixture tastes flat...or too sweet, correct with a touch of lemon juice. 

Transfer the mixture to a buttered 2 1/2 to 3 quart casserole/baking dish.  (The recipe may be completed to this point a day ahead.  Cover and store in the refrigerator.  Bring to room temperature before continuing.)  Scatter the streusel topping over the sweet potatoes and place in a 350° to 375° oven.  Bake until the potatoes are hot through and the topping has crisped.  If the potato/apple purée is still warm this will only take 25 to 35 minutes.  If the purée was made ahead and is at room temperature, it will take 45 minutes to an hour (cover loosely with foil if the streusel is getting to dark).  Serves 8 to 12.

Optional Addition:  Peel, core & dice (about 1/3-inch) 2 medium apples.  Sauté in 2 T. unsalted butter until tender and golden—adding a tablespoon of sugar during the last few minutes of cooking to deepen the caramelization.  Scatter the sautéed apples over the sweet potato purée and then top with the streusel

Friday, November 6, 2015

Apple Fritters...along with a few tips for deep frying

There are several things that might come to mind when you hear the words "apple fritter."  I grew up on donut shop apple fritters—plate-sized masses of lumpy, yeast-raised, deep-fried, cinnamon-scented dough... dotted with chunks of apple and coated with a thick, sugary glaze.  I loved them then, but they are a bit much for me now.  At the other end of the spectrum from this fritter-as-donut concoction is the beignet-style fritter.  With these, the emphasis is on the apple.  Large wedges or rings of apple are dipped in a light batter...and then deep fried.  The batter is important...but it clearly isn't the star....  And as delicious as they can be...they aren't really what I want to eat when I'm in the mood for an apple fritter either. 

The kind of apple fritter that interests me rests somewhere in between these two styles....some might call it a traditional—maybe even home-style—fritter.  These fritters are quick and easy to make—being nothing more than a simple, sweet, muffin-like batter that's full of small cubes of apple and fried by the small spoonful.  If you are familiar with corn fritters...or zucchini will recognize this style of fritter.  These apple fritters—like their savory cousins—are loaded with the namesake ingredient.  At the same time, there is still enough of the sweet fried dough to give an admirable impersonation of a doughnut hole.  (In fact, if you choose to scoop the batter with a small ice cream scoop, these fritters are nearly indistinguishable from donut holes.)  They are, I think, the best of both worlds.

My apple fritter recipe is an adaptation of the one developed by America's Test Kitchen.  Their recipes are typically very reliable and I was attracted to their use of apple cider in the batter (instead of milk) to give added apple flavor.  In my version, I substituted sour cream for some of the cider.  I love the flavor and added tenderness that sour cream adds to cakes and muffins.  Furthermore, since "Old Fashioned" donuts (always made with sour cream as far as I'm aware) are probably my favorite donut, I wanted to add it to my fritters.

The only other major change I made is in the way I add the butter.  In the original recipe (and almost every other recipe I have ever seen), the butter is melted and added to the liquid ingredients.  In typical muffin-method fashion the liquid ingredients are then combined with the dry ingredients.  I chose to rub softened butter into the dry ingredients (as you would for biscuits or scones) instead.  I felt like this would aid in inhibiting gluten development (as it does for pâte brisée)—which would in turn help make for a more tender fritter.  In addition, it produces a firmer batter that is easier to scoop into the fryer.  I was very happy with the result...but I'm sure the fritters would be delicious if made with melted butter too.

I suppose that I should admit I'm not a huge fan of deep fat frying.  It tends to be a bit messy...and the house always smells of fried food for a few hours after (no matter how effective your exhaust system).  In addition to all this, deep frying uses a huge quantity of oil.  It has always seemed kind of wasteful to me.  But, there are some things that are worth it....and every so often—for a special occasion—I like to indulge.   

Since I have never posted anything deep fried before, today's post seems like a good place to discuss some basics.  You don't need any specialized equipment other than a candy/deep fry thermometer.  Any appropriately sized sturdy, heavy-bottomed pot or pan can be made into a deep fryer.  It needs to be at least 4 inches deep since you will need to be able to add oil to a depth of 1 1/2 to 2 inches and still have at least 2 inches between the surface of the oil and the rim of the pot.  If the pot is too full, the hot, bubbling oil might overflow...which could cause a fire.   While on the subject of oil: any neutral vegetable oil will work...safflower, canola, refined peanut, and sunflower oil are all good choices. 

Before heating the oil, make sure that you will be able to give the deep-fryer your undivided attention.  Small children and pets hanging around under your feet are a bad idea.  If your pot has a handle, make sure it is positioned away from you so that you won't accidentally bump it and slosh hot oil out of the pan.  Also, make sure you aren't wearing something with loose sleeves...or anything else that could fall into the oil...or snag the pot/pan in any way.  Finally, have everything that you will need ready to go:  whatever you are frying, a wire rack set over a rimmed tray lined with paper towels and a slotted spoon or mesh skimmer for scooping your fried food out of the fryer.

When you are ready to fry, clip your thermometer firmly to the side of the pan and heat the oil over medium to medium-high heat.  For fritters, the oil should be in the range of 350° to 360°.  Hotter than that and the fritters will get too dark before they are cooked through...much lower than that and they will tend to absorb oil as they cook.  Whatever you are frying...and whatever the specified will need to keep an eye on the temperature and regulate the heat as you work in order to maintain that temperature.  Don't add too many items to the pan at a time as this will lower the temperature substantially.  Similarly, frying a batch that is too small will allow the temperature to increase dramatically.  (For the fritters in this post, a batch of about 5 or 6 is perfect for a pot that is about 8 inches in diameter.)

When you are finished, turn off the heat and make sure the pan of cooling oil is positioned someplace where it won't be knocked around (a back burner of the stove is ideal).  Let the oil cool completely.  If it hasn't darkened too much, it may be reused.  Strain the oil into a clean container (or the bottle the oil came in, if you used the whole bottle) and store it in the refrigerator until you decide you want to deep fry again.  If it has darkened too much to use again, simply discard (don't pour it down your drain!).

I should point out that you can of course make this batter into very large fritters if you like.  The original America's Test Kitchen recipe does just that (and makes 10 fritters instead of 25 to 30).  I make mine small for a couple of reasons:  First, I just don't want to eat something that large!  It's just too much....  Really.  Secondly, in order to cook such large fritters, you need a lower fryer temperature.  At the higher temperature (used for the small fritters) the large fritters would brown before they were cooked through.  And, as I already mentioned, they tend to absorb a lot of oil at this lower temperature.  I think this makes them almost indigestible.  

After frying, your apple fritters can be finished in a number of ways.  A simple sprinkle of powdered sugar is delicious.  They are also good rolled in cinnamon-sugar.  I think that my favorite though is a cider and powdered sugar glaze.  If the fritters are dipped while they are still slightly warm, some of the thick white glaze will be absorbed as the fritters cool.  Then, when the fritters have cooled and the glaze is set, it has a crystalline, slightly translucent look.  

However you choose to finish them, you should make them and enjoy them on the same day.  I'm not sure I have ever had them last longer than a few hours, but like any fried food, I'm sure they are best when very fresh.  You can do much of the work ahead...mixing all of the liquids in one bowl...and mixing the dry ingredients—including the soft butter—in another.  

Then about an hour before you want to serve them, dice the apple, blot dry and add to the dry ingredients.  Combine everything...and let it rest while the oil heats. 

Fried food doesn’t get much simpler.  If you have never deep fried anything before, these are a fun place to start.  Everyone loves them.  They would make a great addition to a breakfast or brunch...or an autumn or holiday buffet...or as a special occasion treat. 

Apple Fritters

2 apples (about 6 oz. each), peeled and cut in a 1/4-inch dice (you should have about 2 cups or 225 grams diced apples)—see note
2 1/3 c. all-purpose flour (280 grams)
1/2 c. sugar (100 grams)
1 T. baking powder
1 t. salt
1 t. cinnamon
1/4 t. nutmeg
2 T. soft butter
2 large eggs
1 t. vanilla
1/4 c. sour cream (60 grams)
1/2 c. cider (120 grams)
vegetable oil for frying
finishing garnish of your choice

Spread the apples in a single layer on a baking sheet lined with a double thickness of paper towels.  Pat the apples dry with more paper towels.

Whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and spices.  Add the butter and using your fingers, rub the butter into the dry ingredients until the mixture resembles coarse sand. 

In another bowl, whisk the eggs with the vanilla and sour cream until smooth.  Whisk in the cider.  Add the apples to the dry ingredients and toss to coat.  

Pour the liquid ingredients over the dry ingredients and using a rubber spatula, mix just until the batter is homogenous, smooth and thick.  Don't over mix.  Cover with plastic wrap and let rest for 15 to 20 minutes. 

While the batter rests, pour the oil into a medium, heavy bottomed pot to a depth of 1 1/2- to 2-inches.  Heat the oil over moderate to moderately high heat until it reaches 350°.  

Working in batches of 5 or 6, use a small ice cream scoop (1 1/2 to 2 tablespoon size), or a mounded table spoon, to carefully drop small dollops of batter into the hot fat.  Regulate the heat as necessary to maintain the temperature of the oil.  Cook the fritters, rolling them over two or three times as they cook (they may roll over on their own), until golden on all sides and cooked through—about 3 to 5 minutes per batch.  Using a slotted spoon or mesh skimmer, transfer the fritters to a rack set over a paper towel lined sheet pan.  Repeat with the remaining batter. 

Let the fritters cool slightly and finish them in one of three different ways.  The fritters may be dipped while they are still slightly warm in a cider glaze. (To make the glaze, whisk 6 T. cider into 3 cups (12 oz.) powdered sugar, whisking until smooth.  Allow the glaze to set before serving.)  Cooled fritters may simply be dredged generously with powdered sugar...or rolled in a mixture of 1/2 c. sugar plus 2 t. cinnamon
The fritters may be served warm or at room temperature.  They are best served the day they are made.  Makes 25 to 30 fritters.

Note:  Fritters may be made with almost any apple—choose tart or you prefer.  I like these with Jonathan, but Granny Smith, Golden Delicious, Gala or Braeburn would all be good choices too.

(Recipe adapted from America's Test Kitchen)

Monday, October 26, 2015

Tortilla Española...simplicity at its best

I have heard that Tortilla Española is often called the national dish of Spain.  I don't know if this is true (there are other contenders for this title), but certainly it is one of the most commonly featured items on any good tapas menu.   Because it is a classic...and because tapas restaurants have become so popular here in the U.S....I have assumed that there couldn't possibly be a need to post yet another recipe for this particular dish.  But recently, while dining at local tapas restaurant, I was dismayed to be served a rather indifferent Tortilla Española.  Apparently it is not the case that everyone knows how to make this simple and classic dish.

And it is a simple dish...nothing more than olive oil poached potatoes and eggs...but, when made properly and carefully, it is (as trite as it may sound) truly greater than the sum of its parts.  It is always a pleasure to make it and then serve it in a class.  People are expecting to eat a boring dish of potatoes and eggs and their eyes light up as they sample the cake of tender olive oil infused potatoes and eggs that have somehow morphed into a delicious unified "other" via the cooking process. 

For those who have never experienced...or heard of...a Tortilla Española (sometimes called Tortilla de Patatas) you might be wondering about the name—thinking of a flatbread instead of an egg dish.  That it is called a Tortilla has to do with the fact that it is flat cake. It is occasionally referred to as a Spanish omelet, and it does in fact look very much like the Italian version of a flat omelet...the frittata.

But, it is not just a potato frittata.  Two things distinguish it from a potato frittata.  The first...and most that (as I have already noted) the potatoes are poached in olive oil.  You might not think that this would make such a difference...but it does.  Not only are the potatoes meltingly tender after being cooked in the oil, they are infused with the flavor of olive oil.  The finished omelet has an entirely different taste and texture than one made with potatoes that have been poached in water...or roasted in the oven. 

The second thing is probably open to debate, but when I think of a frittata, I think first of the eggs...then of the "filling".  The eggs are prominent and they have a definite presence—one that stands up to...and compliments....the flavors and textures of the filling ingredients.  With a frittata there should be a higher ratio of egg to filling than one would find in a Spanish tortilla.  The egg functions more like a binder in the tortilla.  It is a delicious binder, to be sure...but it is really not the main event.  When you look at a cross-section of the finished tortilla, it should look like a tightly packed mosaic of the filling ingredients. 

The tortilla that I was served at the local tapas restaurant failed on both counts.  The potatoes had not been cooked in the olive oil...and a cross-section looked like a sea of cooked egg with random chunks of potato suspended throughout.  (Frankly, I put more filling ingredients in my frittatas than there were potatoes in this particular tortilla...)

Longtime readers may recall that I have posted a couple of variations on the Spanish tortilla in the with potatoes and mushrooms, and the other with potatoes and kale. (I have also posted a potato and artichoke frittata if anyone wants to compare and contrast....)  In both of my tortilla variations I diced the potatoes before poaching them in the olive oil.  But dicing them is not, in my experience, the way the potatoes are cut for the classic Tortilla de Patatas.  Rather, the potatoes are very thinly sliced.  When made with sliced potatoes the tortilla requires more time and careful observation during the cooking process, but the beautiful, layered result is totally worth it. 

 As far as details of preparation go, there are several things to keep in mind as you work.  First, use a non-stick pan.  I prefer French steel, slope-sided fry pans, but a traditional slope-sided American non-stick will work too.  Next, when cooking the potatoes in the oil, remember that you are poaching them...not frying them (they shouldn't brown).  The oil should quietly simmer....not rapidly boil.  

And, make sure that when you are done poaching that the potatoes are cooked through.  It is even okay if some of the slices begin to break up.   

You don't want potato soup...but on the other hand, the potatoes will not cook any further in the egg mixture.  If they are crunchy when stirred into the eggs, they will be crunchy in the finished tortilla.

While on the subject of potatoes: I find that I prefer a starchy potato for my tortilla.  Idaho (Russet) potatoes work well...but Yukon Golds are even better.  According to Anya von Bremzen (author of The New Spanish Table), the traditional potato used in Spain is the slightly less starchy, all-purpose Kennebec.  The potatoes should be sliced right before they are added to the oil, and they should never be rinsed.  Rinsing will wash away the starch and it will also create a splattering mess when the water clinging to the potatoes goes into the hot oil.

As for the eggs, they should be farm fresh.  When there are so few ingredients in a dish, each should be of the highest quality.  The eggs should also be at a warm room temperature.  I have taken to submerging the eggs (in the shell) in a bowl of warm water to warm them until they are a bit above room temperature.  This step seems to help the tortilla cook more quickly and evenly. 

When you are ready to cook the tortilla, make sure that there is no trace of potato (from the poaching process) left stuck to the pan.  If there is any, the tortilla might stick...resulting in a less than beautiful tortilla (not to mention a few bad words...).  A further strategy to avoid the possibility of the tortilla sticking is making sure that the pan and oil are nice and hot.  After the potatoes and eggs have been added and arranged, the heat will be turned down so the eggs won't burn...but the initial heat is important since it will immediately cook and seal the bottom surface of the tortilla.  If you gently shake the pan back and forth a time or two, a thin layer of oil will slide underneath this sealed surface, which will in turn guard against sticking and burning.

Be aware that when you flip the tortilla, there will still be a fair amount of liquid egg in the very center, and until you get the hang of it, the process can be a bit messy.  

To flip it as neatly as possible, make sure you choose a plate that extends beyond the edges of the pan.  Then, clamp down hard on the plate with one hand while using the other hand, choked up on the handle of the frying pan (hold the handle with a thick towel...or a hot pad), to quickly invert the pan and the plate.  When you slide the tortilla back into the pan (which should once again be hot and filmed with oil), use a heatproof spatula to help keep all the loose potatoes and liquid egg tucked under the cooked/solid portion of the tortilla as it goes back into the skillet.  You will need to tuck the edges in a bit with the spatula...and possibly manipulate the surface with your fingers or the make sure that the tortilla is once again neat, level and of an even thickness. 

The tortilla is done when it is just cooked through.  It should feel firm but springy and should be moistbut not liquidin the center (you can always check by inserting the tip of a paring knife into the center of the cake to make sure the eggs are done to your liking.) 

To serve the Tortilla Española as a tapa, it may be cut in thin wedges or small squares.  It is best when garnished simply...with a dollop of sour cream or crème fraiche...and maybe a sprinkling of minced chives.  At my house we love to eat it for a light dinner (cut in four to six fat wedges) with a small salad of some kind.  Recently I served it with a simple salad of the end-of-the-season green beans and cherry tomatoes (very similar to one I posted a few years ago...with the addition of a handful of arugula and a few toasted walnuts).  I had the leftovers (it makes a delicious leftover) for lunch with a compote of warmed cherry tomatoes and olives.   Whatever you choose to serve with your tortilla, make sure it is simple...and not too fussy...   A Tortilla Española is so delicious, you will most definitely want it to be the star of the show. 

Tortilla Española
(Tortilla de Patatas)

1 1/2 to 2 c. olive oil
1 1/2 to 1 3/4 lbs. Idaho or Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut in 1/8-inch slices (do not rinse the potatoes or store in water)
6 eggs, at room temperature
salt & pepper, taste

Use a mandoline to slice the potatoes

In a non-stick (I prefer French steel) 10-inch slope-sided frying pan, heat the olive oil over moderately high heat until hot. Add the potatoes, reduce the heat to medium-low and cook (the oil should maintain a gentle simmer), lifting and turning occasionally with a spatula, until the potatoes are tender and cooked through—they should not brown. This will take approximately 12 to 15  minutes.  Transfer the potatoes to a colander set in a bowl and let drain.

In a large bowl, beat the eggs until slightly foamy.  Add salt to taste (I use kosher salt and I think 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 t. is about right) & a few grindings of pepper.  Add the hot potatoes and stir gently to combine.

Wipe the skillet clean and return to medium-high heat.  Add enough of the drained oil to generously coat the bottom of the pan—about 2 T.  When the oil is very hot (but not smoking), pour the potato mixture into the skillet, spreading the potatoes evenly.  After a few seconds (when you can see that the eggs have begun to set around the edges), reduce the heat to low and cook, shaking the pan occasionally and running a spatula around the edge of the pan to make sure the omelet is not sticking.  When the bottom and sides are firmly set (and the top does not appear to be too liquid)—after 7 or 8 minutes—flip the omelet.  Invert a large round plate over the skillet.  Hold the plate firmly with one hand and turn the skillet over using the other.  If the pan seems dry, add some of the reserved oil to the pan; increase the heat.  When the oil is hot, slide the tortilla back into the pan (cooked side up), reduce the heat, and cook until the omelet is cooked through—about 3 to 5 minutes more.

The goal is a thick soft cake that is a pale golden color on both sides. Transfer to a platter.  Serve in wedges or small squares—hot or at room temperature.  Serves 10 to 12 for tapas, or 4 to 6 as a light entrée. 

Note:  The drained oil may be strained and stored in the refrigerator for use in future omelets...or other cooking purposes.