Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Baked Penne with Cauliflower & Two Cheeses

Because my blog posts in November were almost entirely devoted to Thanksgiving recipes, I find that I haven't posted a pasta yet this month. I guess that today has to be the day. Last night I had a head of cauliflower in my refrigerator that I needed to use and I wasn't feeling terribly creative about what to do with it. It seemed like a good day to prepare an old favorite. I have been busy testing recipes for an upcoming class and it is so relaxing to be able to prepare something that is a familiar favorite.

I have been making this particular pasta—really nothing more than a variation on macaroni and cheese—for at least 10 years. I believe the original is from one of Molly Katzen's books—possibly The Enchanted Broccoli Forest—but I can't be sure which one, because I picked the recipe up from a fellow chef. For some reason my cookbook library doesn't include any of Ms. Katzen's books. If this recipe is a typical example of the kinds of recipes included in her books, I'm probably missing out.

I'm not even sure that the recipe bears much resemblance to the original, because I have adjusted it regularly over the years until it is what it is today. I know the original included a healthy dose of fresh basil, but since I don't tend to use fresh basil in the winter (and I don't usually eat macaroni and cheese...or cauliflower, for that matter...in the summer) the basil has never appeared in my version of this dish.

I have always told people in my classes that this pasta dish could be a good way to get kids to eat cauliflower, but sadly my own experience makes me believe that this might not be true. Several years ago I prepared a large batch of this pasta for a family gathering. It has been long enough ago that most of my many nephews and my niece were under ten...they are mostly older than that now. When we sat down to eat, one of the smaller boys eyed his plate suspiciously and asked loudly "What is this stuff?" His father informed him that it was macaroni and cheese and that he would like it. He continued to examine it and soon let loose with "This isn't macaroni and cheese...this is fake macaroni and cheese!" I have thought of this pasta as "fake macaroni and cheese" ever since. At the same meal, one of the other boys—a slightly older one—was plowing through his serving, obviously enjoying it, when he turned to me quietly and said with the air of one making a discovery, "you put cauliflower in this, didn't you?" I acknowledged that I had. He then stifled a smile, nodded, and kept eating. So maybe this dish is a good way to get slightly older children to eat cauliflower.

The dish that my small nephew would no doubt have recognized as "real" macaroni and cheese is what many of us grew up eating...something out of a box that came with a powdered "cheese" packet or actual homemade macaroni and cheese made with a processed cheese like Velveeta. The lack of brilliant orange coloring must have been the tip-off for my nephew (that, and the visible pieces of tomato floating in the sauce).

I imagine the changeover from real cheese to processed cheese as the cheese of choice for American-style macaroni and cheese took place gradually and for the usual reasons (convenience, the latest thing, "progress", etc.). The unfortunate thing about this is that eventually people forgot how to cook with real cheese. Real cheese and processed cheese behave very differently when you cook with them. Processed cheese can practically be boiled and it won't curdle.  Many real cheeses will curdle when subjected to too high a temperature for too long a time period. If you add a real cheese to a white sauce that is still on the heat and stir and stir until melted, and then toss it with noodles and bake it until it is "bubbling all over", you will likely end up with a dish of noodles floating in something that looks like greasy cottage cheese. Of course, this method produces a beautiful creamy dish of macaroni and cheese when Velveeta or some other processed cheese food is used. A delicate natural cheese just won't stand up to this kind of treatment.

The best way to add a natural cheese to macaroni and cheese—or any baked casserole—is to simply fold it in last, after all the other ingredients and right before the casserole is transferred to the oven.

The cheese will begin to melt as you fold it in and it will continue to melt into the white sauce as the casserole bakes. Also, remember that everything that has gone into the macaroni and cheese is already cooked—it doesn't need to be cooked again, just heated through. So when the casserole is beginning to bubble around the edges, it's done. If it has not turned the beautiful golden brown that you like, simply run it under the broiler for a minute or two. Your final dish will be hot and creamy...just like real macaroni and cheese.

This vegetable-laden macaroni and cheese makes a great dish to serve to a hungry crowd. But even if I'm only cooking for my small household, I always make the whole recipe.  It uses one head of cauliflower and one can of tomatoes, so it makes sense to make the whole thing.  Since it freezes very well, I just divide it into smaller baking dishes, bake one for dinner right away and freeze the remaining one(s) to be baked after thawing. Along with a green salad, it makes a warming and comforting dish for a chilly winter night.

Baked Penne with Cauliflower & Two Cheeses

2 T. olive oil
1 large onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 14- to 15-oz. can diced tomatoes
1 head of cauliflower, cut into small (1/2- to 3/4-inch) florets
Juice of half a lemon, or to taste

1 qt. whole milk
4 T. butter
6 T. all-purpose flour

1 lb. penne pasta
6 oz. Gruyère cheese, coarsely grated
6 oz. sharp white Cheddar, coarsely grated
1/2 c. grated Parmesan or breadcrumbs

Preheat the oven to 350°. Butter a 13x9-inch baking dish and set aside.

In a large sauté pan, sweat the onion and garlic, along with a pinch of salt, in the olive oil over medium heat until the onions are very tender and translucent—it's OK if they are beginning to caramelize.

Add the tomatoes and bring to a simmer. Add the cauliflower, stirring to coat the cauliflower in the tomatoes and onions. Season with salt, cover, reduce the heat and simmer until the cauliflower is just tender—about 15 to 25 minutes. Taste, correct the seasoning and add the lemon juice to taste. 

While the vegetables cook, prepare the béchamel. In a large saucepan, bring the milk to a simmer; keep hot. In another large saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. When the foam subsides, whisk in the flour. Cook stirring constantly for a few minutes—the roux will be bubbly and straw yellow.

Remove from the heat and pour in half of the hot milk, whisking constantly until smooth—it will thicken immediately. Add the remaining milk. Return to the heat and stir constantly until the sauce returns to a simmer. Taste and season as desired with salt and pepper.

Cook the pasta in 6 quarts of rapidly boiling water seasoned with 2 to3 T. salt. Stir occasionally and cook until the pasta is al dente. Drain.

In a large bowl, combine the vegetables, pasta and the béchamel.

Stir to combine. Add the cheddar & Gruyère and fold in just until evenly distributed—the cheese does not have to melt. Transfer to the prepared baking dish and scatter the Parmesan or breadcrumbs over the top and place on a baking sheet.

Bake until hot through and bubbling just around the edges—about 20 to 25 minutes. If necessary, place under the broiler (about 4 inches from the heat) until the top is golden. Serve immediately. Serves 6 to 8.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Winter Squash Pizza with Caramelized Onions & Goat Cheese (and How to Roast a Winter Squash)

While I was working on my Winter Squash & Sweet Potatoes class earlier this month I ran across a pizza recipe that used winter squash purée as its "sauce". Since I'm a fan of pizzas that are sauced with something other than the same old tomato sauce base, this one caught my eye. It was touted as part of a vegetarian Thanksgiving spread—and I'm sure it would be excellent served in that way—but we enjoyed it as the center piece of a light evening meal.

Since you, like me, may still be feeling the effects of the Thanksgiving feast, I thought now would be a good time to share my version of this light, seasonal pizza. For our dinner, I served it with a simple spinach salad. But, if the recipe seems a bit fussy (there are a few steps involved) for a weeknight meal, you could serve it as an hors d'oeuvres at a holiday party. I'm sure it would be a hit—it has a nice balance of sweet and salty tastes and it is easy to eat out of hand. All of the pieces (dough, squash purée, onions) can be made ahead, so it is easy to assemble at the last minute. It doesn't have to be served hot right out of the oven, making it appropriate for setting out for people to nibble on. To serve as an hors d'oeuvres, simply cut it in narrow wedges to make small two or three bite portions. The same quantity of ingredients could be made into two small pizzas so that the smaller portions could be cut into short fat triangles instead of long thin triangles.

The original recipe did not include any goat cheese, but the pizza seemed a bit austere without it. After sampling this pizza I think that it would be amenable to endless substitutions and additions. Crumbled or diced cooked Italian sausage, caramelized apple slices or sautéed mushrooms would all be good compliments for the squash and onions. Thinly sliced fresh fennel, added to the onions and cooked down with them, would be good too.  Once you begin to think of the squash purée as the sauce base, the possibilities for variations begin to multiply.

Since the pizza only needs 3/4 cup of purée, the next time you roast winter squash for something else—soup or risotto, for example—roast a little extra and freeze what you need for the pizza (or make the pizza the next day). Winter squash purée freezes well—there is no reason not to roast a large quantity at one time. If you have never roasted a winter squash before, this pizza would be a good reason to give it a try.  

To Roast and Purée a Winter Squash:  Halve the squash. If the squash is very large, cut it into uniform wedges. Winter squash can be very hard and it is necessary to take some care when cutting one. Before you begin, make sure that your hands, the knife handle and the cutting board are clean and dry. To make the first cut into the squash, rest it on the cutting board and with a firm grip on a large sharp chef's knife, place the blade (not the tip) against the flesh. With your open palm or a mallet, strike the back side of the knife at the point where it is touching the squash in order to sink the knife into the squash to anchor it. Then, place a thick towel over the tip end of the knife (to protect your hand from the tip of the knife) and using steady pressure, rock back and forth slightly as you press down on both ends of the knife. Use the strength of your arms—do not lean over the squash to use your body weight—if the knife or your hand were to slip, you could stab yourself.  Be very careful!

Once the squash is cut, 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 a preheated 375° to 400° oven and roast until very tender when pierced with a fork and caramelized in spots—about 40 minutes to an hour.

When the squash is cool enough to handle, scoop the flesh away from the skin with a spoon. Depending on the intended purpose, the flesh may be puréed in the food processor, run through a food mill or mashed coarsely with a fork. A two pound squash will produce a scant two 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 for some reason you prefer that the squash not caramelize during the roasting process, either cover loosely with foil or oil the pan and roast the squash with the cut surfaces down. Allow the squash to cool uncovered and with cut surfaces up so that the squash can steam a bit as it cools. For most uses, this should be sufficient to rid the squash of any excess moisture. If however, the finished purée seems thin or watery, dry the purée further by spreading it in a shallow pan and baking at 300°, stirring occasionally, until the desired consistency is reached—it will darken a little and will no longer "bleed" water. I usually find it necessary to do this for pumpkins, which tend to be quite watery. A medium-sized pumpkin (2 1/3 to 2 1/2 lbs.) will produce a 10 to 12 oz., or about 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 cups, of purée. If preparing pumpkin for a sweet baked good—such as pie or a cake—don't season or oil it before baking it cut side down.

Winter Squash Pizza with
Caramelized Onions & Goat Cheese

Olive oil
2 medium yellow onions (12 to 16 oz.), halved & thinly sliced
1 clove garlic, finely minced
1 t. each minced sage and rosemary
3/4 c. coarsely mashed winter squash (I prefer Carnival Squash, but Acorn, Butternut or any favorite variety would be fine)
nutmeg, salt & pepper, to taste
Pizza dough (see below)
1 1/2 T. untoasted pine nuts
2 oz. crumbled goat cheese
3/4 oz. finely grated Parmesan or Pecorino

Warm 1 1/2 tablespoons of olive oil in wide sauté pan set over medium heat. Add the onions, garlic, herbs and a pinch of salt and toss to coat with the oil. When the onions begin to sizzle, reduce the heat to very low and cover. Cook until the onions are tender and translucent and beginning to collapse—about 30 minutes.

 Uncover, increase the heat to medium and continue to cook, until the onions are reduced in volume and well-caramelized—another 20 minutes or so. As the onions cook, stir regularly to release the accumulating caramelized bits from the bottom of the pan.

Cool briefly before using.

While the onions cook, season the squash to taste with salt, pepper and a pinch of nutmeg.

Roll the rested dough out into a 12- to 14-inch round and transfer to a baking sheet or pizza pan that has been dusted with flour or cornmeal. Brush the dough with a little olive oil. Spread the squash purée over the dough, leaving a 1/2-inch border. Spread the onions over the squash and scatter the pine nuts and then the goat cheese evenly over the onions and squash. Scatter the Parmesan evenly over all.

Place the pizza in its pan on a pre-heated pizza stone in a pre-heated 450° to 500° oven. Bake until the crust is golden brown on the bottom and the cheese is bubbling, about 12 to 15 minutes. To insure a crisp, fully cooked crust, slide the pizza off of the pan to finish cooking directly on the pizza stone for the last 2 or 3 minutes of baking. When the pizza is done, transfer to a cutting board and cut into wedges and serve.

(Recipe adapted from The New York Times, November 9, 2010)

Pizza Dough:
1/2 cup warm water (100º-110º)
1 1/8 t. active dry yeast
1 1/4 to 1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 T. olive oil
1/2 t. salt

Place the water in a large bowl and add the yeast.  Let soften for a minute or two.  Add 3/4 cup of the flour and whisk until smooth.  Add the oil, salt and another half cup of the flour. Stir with a wooden spoon to form a soft dough that holds its shape. Scrape the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and sprinkle with a bit more flour. Knead the dough, adding just enough flour to keep the dough from sticking, until the dough is smooth and springs back when pressed lightly with a finger—about 5 minutes. Transfer the dough to a lightly oiled bowl and cover the bowl with plastic wrap. Let rise until doubled in bulk—about 1 hour. Punch down the dough. Turn it onto a lightly floured surface and roll into a ball. Cover with a towel and let rest for 10 to 20 minutes. The dough is now ready to be shaped, topped and cooked or frozen.

Variation for a Whole Wheat Crust: Instead of unbleached all-purpose flour, use 3/4 c. bread flour and 1/2 to 3/4 c. whole wheat flour (the new “white” whole wheat flour is a good choice).

(Recipe adapted from The New Basics Cookbook by Julee Rosso & Sheila Lukins)

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Spiced Mixed Nuts

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. Cooks hosting the meal will already have their menus in place and their food preparation well under way (at least I hope so!). So instead of another Thanksgiving side dish or dessert I thought I would devote today's post to a simple recipe for Spiced Mixed Nuts....something that would make an excellent hostess gift to make and take if you (like me) have been fortunate enough to be invited to someone's home this year.

Although I eat (and cook with) nuts of all kinds year round, snacking on them this time of year reminds me of my grandfather. All through the fall and winter, he kept a bowl of unshelled nuts on the stand next to his favorite chair. It was a "bowl" made just for its purpose. Straight-sided and crafted to look like a hollowed out cross-section of a tree, it had special holes and grooves in a solid spindle set in the center to hold the necessary nut crackers and picks. It was a treat to join him, watching his favorite programs on TV, patiently cracking and peeling the shells away from the walnuts, pecans, almonds and filberts.

In this era of ready-made food, I can't imagine that people have the patience to work so hard for a few nuts. I think the act of peeling chestnuts put more than a few people off from a couple of the recipes in my side dishes class. But I can't help but think that we tend to eat less when there is an effort involved in obtaining our food. As far as the nuts are concerned, certainly there is more enjoyment to be had—not only in the consumption of a fresh cracked nut, but also from the shared activity of cracking and peeling and the excitement felt by a child on that elusive occasion when a nut is freed from its shell intact.

But don't worry, I won't suggest that you crack and peel all of the nuts for the Spiced Mixed Nuts in today's post. I'm just suggesting that rather than running to the store for a bottle of wine, a box of chocolates...or a bag of mixed spiced nuts...that you take the extra few moments to make something yourself. It will be better—in so many ways—than anything you could purchase.

Spiced Mixed Nuts

As with almost every recipe, this recipe should be seen as a template. Use it and adapt it to your tastes. The almonds, cashews, pecans and pistachios make up my favorite nut mixture. I love the varied colors and shapes of these nuts together, but you can choose your own mix or use all of one kind of nut. You will need 5 to 6 cups of nuts—make sure that they are raw and unsalted. I'm not crazy about walnuts when I use this particular method, they tend to become bitter and they also shed their skins into the mix which is a bit unattractive. I have never used them, but I imagine that skinned hazelnuts (filberts) would make a very nice addition. As with the nuts, the spices may be varied to please your palate. Remember that if you include a spice blend that includes salt (like curry powder) that you will need to reduce the salt in the recipe.

1 T. cumin
1 t. paprika
1 T. coriander
1/8 t. cayenne (or more if you like more heat)
2 1/2 t. Kosher salt (if using iodized, use 2 t.)
1 T. sugar
2 egg whites
1 1/2 c. almonds
1 1/2 c. cashews
1 1/2 c. pecans
1 1/2 c. pistachios

Place the spices, salt & sugar in a small bowl, whisk to combine and set aside.

In a large bowl, beat the egg whites just until foamy—don't overdo it, you are just trying to break the whites down so they will be more fluid and will easily coat the nuts.

Whisk the spice mixture into the whites until homogenous. Stir in the nuts, continuing to fold until they are well coated in the spices.

Spread the nuts on an oiled or a Silpat-lined baking sheet and bake in a preheated 300° oven for 25 to 30 minutes until the nuts are dry, golden and fragrant.

Cool and serve. Store air tight at room temperature.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Pumpkin Pot de Crème with Molasses Crinkles

The Thanksgiving basics class that I used to teach did not include a recipe for pie. Sort of shocking, I know. But the class really was a class for novice cooks. In teaching it my goal was to help anyone with a minimum level of cooking skill produce a meal that was a success. Asking people who had never made a pie crust before to make one on Thanksgiving day seemed like a recipe for failure...or at least a melt-down or two. Thanksgiving is unfortunately already stressful for some...I wanted to help make the day better—not worse.

Since pumpkin pie is nothing more than a pumpkin custard in a pie crust, my solution was to teach a simple pumpkin custard baked in a ramekin or custard cup. But not just any custard. I taught the egg yolk-based, cream-rich, French custard known as pot de crème. This to me is infinitely more elegant than pumpkin pie anyway. It is simple to make and as a huge bonus for the inexperienced cook, it can be made the day before without any loss of quality.

To go with the pot de crème, I suggest a nice platter of cookies. Everyone can make cookies and they too can be made ahead. I like to serve pots de crème with something simple...like Scottish Shortbread or Russian Teacakes (a.k.a. Mexican Wedding Cakes). For the pumpkin version of pot de crème, my favorite choice is a spicy molasses cookie that I grew up calling Molasses Crinkles. I have also seen them called Molasses Sugar Cookies or Molasses Spice Cookies. My recipe is from a 1956 copy of the Betty Crocker Cookbook, but I think it is identical to the recipe on the jar of Grandma's Molasses. This soft, slightly chewy, ginger-y cookie seems to be universally known and loved.  Everyone's mother seems to have made a version of this cookie.  If you're going to replace pumpkin pie, you could do worse than a silky pumpkin custard accompanied by a beloved cookie.

 My recipe for Pumpkin Pot de Crème only uses 3/4 cup of pumpkin purée. If you purchase a 15 ounce of can of solid pack pumpkin, you will have a cup of pumpkin left over—just enough to whip up a batch of Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Muffins for your Thanksgiving day breakfast. With these tasty muffins for breakfast and elegant custards with cookies for dessert, I don't think anyone will miss the pumpkin pie.

Pumpkin Pot de Crème

2 c. whole milk
2 c. heavy cream
1 cinnamon stick
3/4 cup canned pumpkin purée
1/2 t. ground ginger
1/4 t. ground cloves
1/4 t. grated nutmeg
1 t. vanilla extract
12 yolks
1 cup sugar (see note)

 In a saucepan, combine the milk, cream and cinnamon stick. Bring just to the boil over medium high heat. Remove from the heat and allow to “steep” for 15 to 30 minutes.

In a small bowl, whisk the spices and the vanilla into the pumpkin purée. Set aside.

In a large bowl, whisk half of the sugar into the egg yolks, continuing to whisk until the mixture is thick and lemon in color. Set aside. Add the remaining sugar to the pan with the cream and milk and return the pan to the heat. Bring back to the boil. Gradually add the hot liquid to the egg mixture, whisking constantly. Whisk in the pumpkin and spices. Pour the custard through a fine mesh strainer.  Don't skip this step.  Pumpkin is fibrous and straining will make the custard more refined.

Fibrous bits of pumpkin strained out of the custard (along with the cinnamon stick)

Allow to sit for a minute or 2. Skim and discard the foam that has risen to the top.  If not skimmed off, the foam will create a rough finished surface on the baked custard. 

Foam skimmed off of custard

Divide 12 4-oz. ramekins between 2 roasting pans. Using a measuring cup with a pouring spout or a ladle, divide the custard between the 12 ramekins. Pour enough boiling water into the roasting pans to come half way up the side of each ramekin. Cover the pan loosely with aluminum foil. Bake in the center of a 325º oven until the custards are set around the edges but still trembling in the center—25 to 35 minutes.

Remove the ramekins from the water bath and allow them to cool to room temperature.

Cover and chill for at least 8 hours—should be made a day or 2 ahead.

Serve well chilled with a rosette or dollop of whipped cream and a sprinkling of freshly grated nutmeg. Pass a plate of cookies along side. Serves 12

Note: This recipe is not quite the same version that I taught in that long ago class. I have increased the number of egg yolks and I have also increased the sugar. If you prefer a less sweet custard, you may reduce the sugar to 3/4 cup.

Molasses Crinkles

1/2 c. (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened (114 grams)
1/4 c. Crisco (44 grams)
1 c. dark brown sugar
1 egg
1/4 c. unsulphured molasses
2 1/3 c. all purpose flour (270 grams)
2 t. baking soda
1/4 t. salt
1/2 t. cloves
1 t. cinnamon
1 t. ginger

Cream the butter, Crisco and sugar together in a large bowl. Beat in the egg and then the molasses. In a separate bowl, combine all of the dry ingredients. Add these to the creamed mixture. Chill the dough.

Roll the cookie dough into scant 1-inch balls and roll in granulated sugar. Place on greased cookie sheets and bake at 375° just until set—about 8 to 10 minutes. Makes about 60 cookies.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Sweet Potato Gratin with Turnips & Yukon Gold Potatoes

In my parade of Thanksgiving recipes, it would be a shame if I didn't include a vegetable gratin. Always well-received, they are beautiful, versatile and very satisfying. I love them.

Technically, any vegetable, or combination of vegetables, that has been baked in a shallow dish in such a way that it has become browned on top—the word gratin is from the French verb gratiner which means "to brown"—can be called a vegetable gratin. But for my holiday purposes, I am referring specifically to a dish in the style of the famed Gratin Dauphinois—thinly sliced potatoes, layered with heavy cream and baked slowly to melting tenderness. By the time the Gratin Dauphinois is finished baking, it has acquired a beautiful burnished brown surface (even if it doesn't have cheese on top). Gratins are always baked in a wide shallow dish so that there will be as much surface area as possible available for browning. In fact, the classic oval dish used for baking them is commonly called a Gratin....

I frequently make the classic potato version, but I also love to make gratins with potatoes in combination with other vegetables....particularly the root vegetables. Almost any root vegetable will be at home in a potato gratin. People who think they don't like turnips or parsnips might be persuaded to try them if they are presented with a bubbling dish of creamy, cheese-topped potatoes that just happens to include a few turnips or parsnips.

For many years, my favorite holiday version of the gratin was one made of Idaho Potatoes and Butternut Squash. I never get tired of this combination and I have taught it several times. But for my Winter Squash and Sweet Potatoes class this year I thought I would teach a gratin with sweet potatoes and use the squash in other preparations.  If you happen to have some family members who want white potatoes for Thanksgiving and others who think that the holiday table isn't complete without sweet potatoes, this gratin might be a good way to please everyone. 

In addition to the sweet potatoes, I included some turnips in the gratin. The slightly bitter turnips make a great partner for the sweet potatoes. This gratin would be a great way to introduce turnips to someone who has never had them. It would also be a good side dish to try if you are tired of the extreme sweetness of the standard sweet potato dishes.

In one respect, this gratin is a bit of a departure for me. I generally make my gratins with all cream. Recently I have been experimenting with incorporating a bit of stock into my root vegetable gratins. My purpose in doing this is to achieve a gratin that isn't so shockingly rich. Holiday meals are rich enough. Even a small portion of a gratin made with all cream can push you over the edge from being a little bit too full to feeling ill. With this gratin, I think I have hit upon a ratio of cream to vegetables that works well. I use a half cup of cream for each pound of root vegetables—this makes for a gratin that is not quite so rich, but is still satisfyingly creamy. I include directions in a footnote to the recipe if you would like to use less cream...or if you would like to use all cream.

If you need to make your gratin ahead, you can build and bake it the day before or early in the day on the day you will be serving it. Remove it from the oven when the vegetables are just tender and before the cream has reduced to the point when it is "bubbling thickly"—perhaps after 45 minutes. If you bake the gratin until the cream is fully reduced (as you would if you were serving it right away), the cream will continue to reduce when the gratin is reheated and it will break into butter and milk solids and will look curdled. It will still taste good, but it will no longer be beautiful and creamy. After removing the gratin from the oven, cool to room temperature and then refrigerate. Before serving, bring the gratin back to room temperature. Cover loosely with foil and bake at 350° until hot through—30 minutes or so.

I should probably mention that if you are comparing my recipe to the gratin in the pictures, you will notice that the one pictured is not a full recipe.  It is just under half of a recipe.  When I began to plan my Sunday dinner this past week I discovered that I had one lonely turnip and one lonely Yukon gold potato left from my last trip of the season to the farmers' market.  I decided to make a small version of this gratin to go with a roast chicken.
The reason that I mention this is that it gives me a good opportunity to point out that although you should feel free to multiply or divide a gratin to suit your needs, you should be aware that the amount of liquid may not multiply or divide proportionately to the vegetables.  For half a recipe of this gratin, you would expect to use 3/4 cup of cream and 1/4 cup of stock.  In practice I used 3/4 c. of cream and somewhere between 1/3 and 1/2 cup of stock.  The amount of liquid needed in a gratin of any size can vary a bit.  As always, it is important not to just blindly follow the recipe.  When adding liquid to a gratin, add just enough so that when the vegetables are pressed , they are only partially submerged:

When you are not pressing down on the vegetables, the liquid will just barely be visible around the edges:

Too much liquid and a gratin will be soupy...not enough and it will be dry and won't cook evenly.  For this particular gratin, follow the rule of thumb of 1/2 cup of cream per pound of vegetables and then add stock until the level of liquid in the pan is as described.

The gratin was very good with our roast chicken--almost a mini Thanksgiving.  And it was an especially nice way to say good-bye to the tail end of my local vegetables for the season.


Sweet Potato Gratin with Turnips & Yukon Gold Potatoes

1 T. butter
1 lb. Sweet Potatoes
1 lb. Turnips
1 lb. Yukon Gold potatoes
1 1/2 c. Heavy Cream
1/2 c. chicken stock or low-sodium canned broth
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 T. chopped fresh thyme
Salt & freshly ground pepper
4 oz. coarsely grated Gruyère

Butter a 2 1/2- to 3-quart shallow gratin; set aside.

Peel all of the vegetables and slice very thinly (1/16-inch thick) cross-wise. This is most easily done with a mandoline slicer. Peel and slice the Yukon potatoes last so they won't oxidize.

While you are peeling and slicing the vegetables, bring the cream and stock to a simmer. Remove from the heat and season well with salt and pepper.

Shingle the turnips in and even layer in the baking dish. Scatter half of the thyme and garlic over the turnips and season lightly with salt & pepper.

Moisten with some of the cream/stock mixture. In like manner, layer in the Yukon potatoes, seasoning with half the thyme and garlic, and some salt & pepper. Moisten with some of the cream/stock mixture.

Finish the gratin with an attractive layer of shingled sweet potatoes, seasoning again with salt & pepper.

Add enough of the remaining cream/stock mixture so that the vegetables are just covered when lightly pressed. Scatter the Gruyère evenly over the gratin.

Place the gratin on a baking sheet and bake in a preheated 350° oven until the vegetables are very tender, the cream is reduced and bubbling thickly and the top is golden brown—1 hour to 1 hour and 15 minutes. The gratin may be served immediately or kept in a low oven (less than 200°) for up to 2 hours. Serves 8 to 10.

Note: This is a lighter version of a traditional gratin. A classic gratin is made entirely with heavy cream. If you prefer the richer, classic version, use 2 cups of heavy cream and lower the oven temperature to 325°. The gratin will take 15 to 30 minutes longer to cook. For an even lighter version, use 1 cup stock and 1 cup heavy cream and bake at 375° for about an hour.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Brandied Apple & Currant Crumb Tart

I noticed I hadn't posted a Thanksgiving dessert yet this month...a serious omission. At the Thanksgiving meals of my childhood, dessert meant only pie. Recently I have taken to squeezing in the occasional tart. For a few years, I prepared our family's traditional mincemeat as a tart instead of a pie. This is more in keeping with the way I had seen mincemeat served while in England and the mincemeat lovers in my family did not object. Since my family is seriously grounded in their traditions, I'll take this as an indication that even traditionalists who are looking for a new recipe for apple pie this year would enjoy making and serving my Brandied Apple & Currant Crumb Tart for Thanksgiving.

A few years ago when my friend Nancy invited me to her home for Thanksgiving, I made this tart for dessert. It seemed to me that it was very well-received. I liked it so much I wrote down the recipe so I could make it again...and possibly teach it. When I was putting together an Autumn Desserts class a couple of years ago, it was one of the first desserts I thought of.  I was reminded of the tart last week during a day spent cooking with Nancy.  She had asked me to help with a large event she was working on.  We were preparing—among other things—some beautiful little apple streusel tartlets that she had developed. 

The apple filling that I use in the tart that I make is adapted from a recipe in Simply French by Patricia Wells. It is a bit unusual in that the apples are sautéed over high heat before they are put in the tart shell. The high heat encourages the apples to caramelize

and also causes the juices given off by the apples to evaporate (it is important to choose a pan large enough to hold the apples in a snug single layer in order to accomplish both of these things). The resulting filling has a wonderful caramelized apple flavor. And since there isn't an abundance of liquid, a thickener—which can mute the apple flavor—isn't required. The clear apple flavor of the tart filling is accentuated by the addition of a generous amount of Calvados-soaked currants. I love the flavors in this tart...there is something particularly holiday-festive about it.

Because all of the components of the tart—crust, filling and streusel—can be made ahead, it makes a perfect holiday dessert for the cook. The tart itself could probably be made the day before, but once all of the components are made, assembling and baking the tart is very fast and easy. Pies and tarts really do taste best when served the same day they are baked.

The most difficult thing about making the tart—and it's only difficult if you aren't familiar with the technique—is making the clarified butter to sauté the apples. Besides butterfat, butter contains milk solids, whey and water. Whole butter is not used for high heat cooking because the milk solids burn almost immediately when they come into contact with high heat. In order to be able to use butter for sautéing you must get rid of everything but the butterfat. To do this, place the butter in a saucepan—something with a small diameter is best. Melt it over medium heat. When the butter is completely melted, remove it from the heat and skim off the foam that has risen to the surface.

At this point, you can ladle the clear butterfat off of the whey remaining in the bottom of the pan. Or—and this is a bit unorthodox, but it works well for me for small amounts of butter—you can return the butter to medium or medium-low heat. The water will percolate off as the butter continues to heat—you will hear it popping and snapping. When the popping stops, immediately spoon or pour the butterfat off into another container—if you allow the butterfat to continue to sit on the heat, you will get some unwanted browning (possibly burning) of the whey and any remaining milk solids. A stick of butter will produce about 6 tablespoons of clarified butter. For those who are interested in a clear presentation of the classic method for clarifying butter, it is done very well (with great pictures) on David Lebovitz's Blog.

As you look at the pictures in my post today, it will be obvious that I didn't make a 9-inch round tart (as described in the recipe). I made two 4-inch by 13 1/2-inch rectangular tarts. One and one half times the filling and streusel recipes given below will make two rectangular tarts. One recipe of the crust is just enough for two of these rectangular tarts (I mention in a note below the recipe that the crust recipe is more than enough for a nine inch round tart). I really like the look of the tart in its rectangular form. It is a bit unusual, but more importantly, it is much more conducive to creating small portions. And since almost everyone at the Thanksgiving feast usually requests "a sliver of both" when presented with a choice of pies, being able to cut nice looking small portions is a good thing.

Brandied Apple & Currant Crumb Tart

2/3 cup dried currants
2 T. Calvados (or Brandy or cider)
2 to 2 ½ lb. Golden Delicious apples (5 or 6 large), peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
3 T. clarified butter
1/4 c. sugar
1 9-inch sweet tart dough shell, unbaked (recipe below)
1 recipe streusel crumb topping (recipe below)

Preheat the oven to 375°. Adjust the oven rack to the lowest setting. In a small bowl, toss the currants with the Calvados, set aside.

In a sauté pan large enough to hold the apples in a snug single layer, heat the clarified butter over high heat. Add the apples and sauté, tossing frequently, until tender and golden brown—about 10 minutes. Sprinkle the sugar over; toss and cook briefly until the apples are glazed. Add the currants and Calvados and toss again (most of the unabsorbed Calvados will boil off immediately). Remove from the heat and cool to room temperature, stirring occasionally. The apples should be moist, but not soupy.

Place the chilled tart shell on a baking sheet. Scrape the fruit into the tart shell, spreading evenly, and top with the streusel—the fruit should be fully covered.

 Bake until the streusel is golden brown and the sides of the tart shell are golden (push up on the bottom of the tart to check this)—about 30 to 40 minutes. Let cool an hour or two before serving. Dredge with powdered sugar and serve with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.

Streusel Crumb Topping:
2/3 c. flour
1/4 c. granulated sugar
1/4 c. packed brown sugar
1/2 t. cinnamon
1/4 t. nutmeg
4 T. cold unsalted butter

Combine flour, sugars, and spices. Add the butter. Rub the butter into the dry ingredients until the mixture appears sandy & is homogeneous.

Sweet Tart Dough:
1/2 c. (1 stick) unsalted butter
6 T. granulated sugar
1 egg yolk
1 t. vanilla
1 1/4 c. all-purpose flour
1/3 cake flour

Briefly cream the butter and sugar together until smooth. Beat in the egg yolk and the vanilla. Add the flours and mix until well combined--it may still be in "clumps". Form the dough into a thick disk. Use immediately, or wrap in plastic and chill or freeze. Let the dough soften before rolling out.

On a lightly floured board (or between 2 sheets of plastic wrap), roll dough out to a thickness of 1/8-inch. Brush off the excess flour and transfer the dough to a greased tart pan. Ease the dough into the pan being careful not to stretch it and pressing it against the sides of the tart pan. Use your hands or the rolling pin to gently cut the dough flush with the upper rim of the tart pan.  Do not worry if the dough breaks or crumbles as you put it into the pan.  The dough patches very easily.

 Note: This amount of dough is enough for 1 ½ 9-inch tarts. I generally make up a double batch and divide it into 3 disks of dough. Freeze the disks that you don’t need.