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)

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Provençal Vegetable Galette

For years I have been making a free form summer vegetable galette that is filled with ingredients that I associate with the South of France:  eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes and goat cheese.  Because I love this combination of flavors so much, I have continued to make this tart even though it always seemed to be just a tad bit dry.  The reason for the lack of moisture was obvious to me:  the vegetables were cooked before putting them in the unbaked crust to prevent them from releasing all of their juices into the crust as it baked.   A soggy crust seemed even less satisfactory to me than a slightly dry tart. 

Recently I was slated to teach this tart shortly after I taught a class that featured another favorite summer tart—a tart that is filled to the brim with fresh summer tomatoes.  The method I use to prevent the raw tomatoes (which are incredibly juicy) from releasing their juices into the baking crust is to salt them and let them sit for a few moments (causing them to release their liquid) and then blot them dry before layering them into the crust.  It works very well.  I was in fact doing this very thing for the tomato portion of the Provençal vegetable tart....  

I don't know why it never occurred to me to do the same thing with the eggplant and zucchini that I was doing with the tomatoes.  I even use this technique in a summer squash gratin that I posted several years ago.  It must have been something about the juxtaposition of the two classes, combined with my current reading material (Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat by Samin NosratI was reading the section on the properties of salt at the time), that dropped the idea into my head.

So a few days before I taught my Provençal Vegetable Galette, I made it for my own table...this time salting and blotting the vegetables instead of roasting them.  Not only was the resulting tart satisfactorily juicy, the crust wasn't at all soggy.  As a bonus, the tart was beautiful—much more so than in its previous incarnation.

I should add that both versions of the tart feature a smear of herbed cheese underneath the vegetables.  This layer of cheese acts as a barrier to the juices being released by the vegetables as the tart bakes (whether the vegetables go into the tart cooked or uncooked).  The tart could probably be made with cooked vegetables without the layer of cheese.  But it could not be made with the uncooked vegetables without it (or some other "barrier"—a layer of cooked onions or leeks, for example).

The origin of this tart is a recipe in Maria Helm Sinskey's book The Vineyard Kitchen.  She recommends using Japanese eggplant and plum tomatoes.  This makes it so that the eggplant, zucchini and tomatoes will all have a similar diameter and can be arranged in beautiful, even, concentric circles.   I have found that ordinary globe eggplant and vine-ripened tomatoes work fine—and can be beautiful as long as they are thoughtfully arranged. 

One of the things I love the most about cooking is that I'm constantly learning more....   Learning about technique...learning about the properties and characteristics of specific ingredients...learning how to apply my battery of techniques to an ingredient or set of ingredients in order to produce a desired result.  And when I cook thoughtfully, I learn something almost every time I step into the kitchen.  The tart was good before (I don't think anyone but me ever had a problem with it!).  It is even better now.  

Provençal Vegetable Galette

1 recipe Pâte Brisée (see below)
8 to 9 oz. eggplant
8 to 9 oz. zucchini or summer squash
8 to 9 oz. medium sized vine ripened tomatoes
Kosher salt

1/2 c. (120 g.) whole milk ricotta

2 t. olive oil
1/2 T. flour
1 t. minced rosemary or 1/2 T. minced thyme (or rosemary or winter savory)
1 clove garlic, smashed to a purée with a pinch of salt
freshly ground black pepper
2 oz. goat cheese
Olive Oil for brushing
1/4 c. finely grated Pecorino (20g)

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper; set aside.  Roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface into a circle that is about 1/8-inch thick and is about 12 to 13 inches across.   Trim any especially uneven or ragged edges—but don't worry too much about it, this is supposed to be a rustic tart.  Brush off the excess flour.  Transfer the dough to the prepared sheet. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and chill for at least 30 minutes.

Wash and trim the eggplant and zucchini.  Wash and core the tomatoes.  If the eggplant skin seems tough, "stripe" the eggplant by using a peeler to remove lengthwise strips of skin, creating a striped effect.  Slice the eggplant into thin rounds (slightly less than 1/4-inch thick).  Slice the squash to a similar thickness on a slight diagonal.  Transfer to a bowl and toss with 3/4 t. kosher salt.  Slice the tomatoes a scant 1/4-inch thick (use a serrated knife) and spread out on a double thickness of paper towel.  Sprinkle the tomatoes evenly with salt. Let the eggplant, squash, and tomatoes sit for 10 to 15 minutes so they can give up some of their liquid. 

While the vegetables release some of their liquid, place the ricotta in a small bowl with the olive oil, flour, herbs and garlic.  Mix until well blended.  Season to taste with salt and pepper. 

When you are ready to build the tart, lift the eggplant and squash out of the bowl, leaving as much liquid behind as possible.  Spread the vegetables out on paper towels.  Blot the eggplant, squash and tomatoes with paper towels to absorb the excess liquid.  Taste a piece of squash and/or a tomato and add more salt if necessary.

Spread the ricotta in a 9-inch diameter circle in the center of the chilled pâte brisée (leaving a 1 1/2- to 2-inch border of dough).  Shingle the vegetables attractively over the cheese, distributing the different vegetables evenly and arranging in concentric circles.  

Brush the vegetables with olive oil.  Scatter the pecorino evenly over all.  Gently fold the edges of the crust up and over the filling to form a rustic edge.  Pleat the dough as necessary, pressing lightly into place.

Bake the tart in a 400° oven on the lowest rack or on a preheated baking stone set in the middle of the oven until the vegetables are bubbling, the pecorino is golden and the crust is crisp and golden brown—about 40 to 50 minutes.  Transfer the tart to a wire rack. Let the tart rest for 5 minutes (or cool until just tepid) before serving.  Tart serves 6. 

(Recipe adapted from The Vineyard Kitchen by Maria Helm Sinskey)

Pâte Brisée (Short Crust Pastry):

1 1/3 c. all-purpose flour (150g)
1/2 t. salt
8 T. cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces (114g)
3 to 4 T. ice water

Combine the flour and the salt in a medium-sized bowl.  Rub the butter into the flour until the butter is in small pea-sized pieces. 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 disk.  Chill for at least 30 minutes.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Pear Upside-Down Honey-Spice Cake and the Beginning of the Pleasures of Autumn...

I'm certain that I have mentioned in previous September posts that the summer to autumn turn of the year is the one time I find myself wanting to put on the brakes and hang on to the previous season with all my might.  I actually prefer the cooler temperatures of autumn...but I dread the loss of the light.

This year feels different though.  We had an extremely cool and temperate August (I'm not sure the temperature went over 90° even once...which is sort of unprecedented in the Midwest) I've kind of begun to get used to the idea of autumn a bit earlier than usual.  Moreover, I began eating pears early this year.  Pears always begin showing up at the farmers' market in August.  And I resolutely resist them until mid September...or even later.  But not this year.  One of the growers at my new farmers' market grows a huge variety of pears and has kindly offered me samples of several.  They have been spectacular.  I have especially enjoyed them since the local peach harvest came to a much earlier end than usual (or so it seemed to me).

As I have been considering what to do with these beautiful pears (other than simply eating them raw as a snack or in a salad) I remembered a dessert that I haven't thought about in years: a Pear Upside-down Honey-Spice Cake that I developed for the National Honey Board.  I'm not sure why I ever stopped making this cake. It is just the kind of simple, elegant-but-with-no-frills kind of cake that I like. 

If you like gingerbread, you will love this cake.  I developed it using a favorite gingerbread cake as a starting point (albeit with a greatly reduced level of spice—the original amount would have overwhelmed the delicate perfume of the honey and the pears).  Since I have altered that favorite gingerbread cake in the intervening years since I developed the honey cake, I decided to change the honey cake when I made it this time, too.  I like the new version even better than my original.

I made my cake with local Warren pears and local honey from my farmers' market.  And I encourage you to seek out local ingredients for your cake too.  Any flavorful and fragrant honey that tastes good with the pears will be good in this cake. And any pear that is similar to the Bartletts, Boscs, and Anjous that typically populate the produce aisles of your local grocery store will be fine.  Look for medium-sized (6 to 7 oz. each) pears that are just beginning to be ripe.  They should still be slightly firm for this cake.

Typically at the end of August and during the early days of September I am scrambling to make as much of the end of the peach season as possible—peach coffee cake, peach shortcakepeach galettes....  Pears don’t begin to make their way into my baking until late September (actual autumn).   But this year, making this very autumnal pear & spice cake over the Labor Day weekend was truly a pleasure.  Having it on hand to enjoy helps me to remember that there are delights associated with every season.  So here's to autumn....and to the bounty of pleasures to be found in the season to come.    

Pear Upside-Down Honey-Spice Cake

Honey-Spice Cake:
4 oz. (8 T.) unsalted butter
425 g. (1 1/4 c.) honey
1 egg, beaten
240 g. (3/4 c). buttermilk
1 t. vanilla
230 g. (2 c.) all-purpose flour
1/2 t. salt
1 t. baking soda
1 t. ground ginger
1/2 t. ground cloves
1/4 t. cinnamon

Pear Topping:
4 firm but ripe Bartlett (or similar) pears (about 1 1/2 to 1 3/4 lbs total)
200 g. (1 c.) granulated sugar
40 g. (3 T.) butter (salted or you prefer)

Preheat the oven to 350°.  Butter a 10x2 –inch round cake pan (do not use a shallower pan—the cake will over-flow).

Put the stick of butter and the honey in a saucepan and place over medium heat.  Gently warm until the butter is melted—do not let the honey boil.  Whisk to combine; set aside and keep warm.  In a small bowl, combine the egg, buttermilk and vanilla; set aside.  Place the dry ingredients in a large bowl and whisk to blend; set aside.

Peel the pears.  Cut into quarters lengthwise and remove the cores.  Cut each quarter in half lengthwise.  Place the sugar in a nonstick (cast iron is perfect) sauté pan and place over medium high heat.  When the sugar begins to melt, stir with a wooden spoon.  Continue to stir and cook until all the lumps of sugar are dissolved and the sugar syrup is a light amber color—this will only take a minute or two.  Remove the pan from the heat and add the 3 T. of butter—be careful, the hot caramel will sputter when the butter is added.  Stir until the butter is incorporated.

Working quickly, pour the hot caramel into the prepared cake pan—tilting the pan to completely cover the bottom.  Being careful not to burn your fingers on the hot caramel, fan the pears in a circle around the edge of the cake pan; fill in the center with the remaining 6 or 7 pear slices.  If the caramel hardens before the pears are in place, set the pan over low heat (or in the oven) to soften the caramel.  It is important that the pears are “stuck” in the caramel as it sets up as the batter is quite thin, and the pears will float if they are not “attached” to the caramel.  Set the pan aside.

Pour the honey/butter mixture over the dry ingredients and whisk until smooth.  Add the egg mixture and mix with a rubber spatula until well combined.  Pour the batter over the pears.  Bake the cake until the cake springs back when pressed very lightly and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean—about 40 minutes.   

Cool the cake for 10 minutes in the pan.  Invert the cake onto a serving platter. 

Serve slices of cake with a dollop of lightly sweetened whipped cream drizzled with a little honey.  Also, if you used unsalted butter in the pear topping, a few flakes of sea salt sprinkled over each slice really lifts the flavors.  Cake serves 12.

  • If you don't have a 10- by 2-inch round cake pan, a 10-inch cast iron skillet is perfect. 
  • It is very important to prepare the recipe in the order written—i.e. to mix the dry ingredients, honey-butter syrup, and the egg-buttermilk-vanilla mixture first before peeling and slicing the pears and making the caramel. Not only do you have to work quickly to embed the pears into the caramel before it hardens, you must finish mixing the batter and then put it in the pan immediately after combining the pears and caramel. The reason for this is that the pears begin to cook and release their juices almost immediately upon contact with the hot caramel. When they release enough liquid, they will begin to detach from the hard caramel...and will float in the batter rather than staying stuck to the bottom of the pan. 
  • If your pears are larger than about 6 or 7 oz. each you will probably only need 3 pears. If his is the case, cut them into 10 or 12 slices each instead of 8.