Thursday, September 30, 2010

Banana Chocolate Walnut Cake

It has been an unusually busy week (and it isn't over yet), so most of my cooking at home has been just enough to put something nourishing on the table.  Unfortunately there hasn't been enough time to blog about any of it. Instead, I thought I would end September with something short and sweet by sharing a recipe from an old issue of Gourmet—my favorite banana cake.

I mentioned once that in my house we almost never have more than one banana reach a state of ripeness appropriate for baked goods. This means that if I want a banana cake or a batch of banana bread I have to plan a few days ahead so I can purchase the necessary bananas and then allow them to ripen. But for some reason a week or two ago, three bananas hung around long enough to become well-speckled. Suddenly, there they were. I seized the moment and made this cake.  I'm so glad that I did, because now, even during a very busy week, I have something in my freezer to help start my day on a happy note. 

Banana Chocolate Walnut Cake

2 1/4 (9 oz.) cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 stick (4 oz) unsalted butter, softened, plus 2 tablespoons, melted and cooled
1 cup sugar, divided
2 large eggs, room temperature
1 1/4 cups mashed very ripe bananas (about 3 medium)--see note
2/3 cup plain whole-milk yogurt
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2/3 c. semi-sweet chocolate chips (4-oz)
1 cup walnuts (3 oz), toasted, cooled, and coarsely chopped
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Preheat oven to 350°F with rack in middle. Butter and flour a 9-inch square cake pan; set aside.

Whisk together the flour, baking soda, and salt; set aside.  Cream the butter (1 stick) and 3/4 cup sugar in a medium bowl with an electric mixer at medium speed until pale and fluffy, then beat in eggs 1 at a time until blended. Combine the bananas, yogurt, and vanilla and add to the creamed mixture alternately with the flour mixture, beginning and ending with the flour mixture.

Toss together chocolate, nuts, cinnamon, melted butter, and remaining 1/4 cup sugar in a small bowl. Spread half of banana batter in cake pan and sprinkle with half of chocolate mixture.

Spread remaining batter evenly over filling and sprinkle remaining chocolate mixture on top.  

Bake until cake is golden and a wooden pick inserted in center of cake comes out clean, 35 to 40 minutes. Cool cake in pan on a rack 30 minutes, then turn out onto rack and cool completely, right side up.

Recipe adapted from Gourmet Magazine February 2008

Note:  Do not bother making this cake unless you have very ripe bananas...the skins should be well-spotted and the flesh very soft.  If the bananas are just a bit over-ripe the cake will not seem very sweet and will also have a slightly tough texture. 

Printable Version

Monday, September 27, 2010

Chocolate Pot de Crème

Regular readers of my blog probably know by now that my favorite desserts are fruit desserts. But that doesn't mean I am not fond of chocolate. It's just that if I'm going to eat chocolate, most of the time I want to have the pure chocolate experience without a lot of embellishment.

I taught chocolate pot de crème last week. For those who aren't familiar with it, pot de crème is a French, egg yolk-rich, heavy cream-based custard that is baked in a small ramekin or petit pot (pronounced pō). 

The pots are petite because the custard is very rich—you really only need a small amount.  You could even use espresso cups.  Pot de crème can be any flavor, but most often it is vanilla bean-infused or intensely chocolate. 

I don't think there is anything particularly unique about the quantities of yolks, cream, chocolate and sugar in my recipe, but I do think the mixing method is a bit different. I adopted it from the chocolate pot de crème recipe in The Balthazar Cookbook. Most custards combine at least a portion of the sugar with the egg yolks before adding the hot liquids. I believe this is to provide some measure of protection for the yolks so that they will be less likely to scramble when the hot liquid is added. This recipe adds all of the sugar to the pan with the milk and cream to be heated with them. Since the chocolate is then added to this mixture before it is added to the yolks, the chocolate cools the liquid down enough that scrambling isn't an issue. The benefit of this method is that the sugar is fully dissolved in the hot milk/cream mixture and the resulting custard seems to me to be much silkier.

After my classes I usually sit down with the class assistants to relax with them and also to eat a little of the food that I have prepared. This week I was chatting away when I took a bite of the chocolate pot de crème and interrupted myself to say "Oh my!"

It was sooooo good. And that is the kind of chocolate dessert that I want to eat—so chocolate-y and so suave that it stops you in your tracks and demands your undivided attention. Something that would cause you to say with Homer-like focus "Mmmmm Chocolate..."

I only had a little taste that evening and they have been on my mind ever since. Fortunately, I have found a good reason to make another batch. As it turns out, the very day that I was teaching that class was the 50th birthday of a good friend....and it completely slipped my mind. I usually have no trouble remembering birthdays, so I'm not sure how I managed to forget his birthday. But I will be working with my friend this week and thought I would take a batch of chocolate pots de crème in with me as a belated birthday treat. I do hope that he enjoys them....I'm certain they will make me happy.

Chocolate Pot de Crème

3/4 c. whole milk
3/4 c. heavy cream
1/4 c. sugar
4 oz. bittersweet chocolate (something around 60%), finely chopped
4 large egg yolks
1/2 t. vanilla extract

Line a baking pan with a couple layers of paper towels or a kitchen towel. Place the ramekins or custard cups in the pan. The pan should be just large enough to hold them comfortably without touching.

Place the milk, cream and sugar in a small saucepan and bring just to a simmer. Remove from the heat and add the chocolate. Let sit for a moment or two to allow the heat to fully penetrate the chocolate; whisk until smooth.

In a small bowl, whisk the egg yolks. Then, in a slow, steady stream, add in the chocolate-cream mixture, stirring until smooth. Stir in the vanilla.  If time permits, allow the custard to sit for a few moments so that any bubbles that have formed during the whisking will rise to the surface and can be skimmed off.  If you take the time to do this, the surface of the finished custards will be perfectly smooth.

Divide the cream among the ramekins. Pour enough hot water (just off the boil) into the pan to reach about halfway up the sides of the ramekins.

Cover the pan loosely with foil (this will prevent a skin from forming on the cream). Place the pan in the center of a 300° oven and bake until the cream is just set at the edges but still trembling in the center, about 25 to 35 minutes.

Remove the pan from the oven and carefully remove the ramekin from the water. Let the custard cool to room temperature and then refrigerate, loosely covered, for at least 2 hours. Serve chilled with whipped cream, if desired.

Makes 8 small (3-oz. ramekins), 6 medium (4-oz. ramekins), or 4 large (6-oz. ramekins)

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The "Shoulder" Season and Polenta with Fresh Sweet Corn

It has been a while since I posted a picture of my purchases from the Farmers' Market. During our long summer growing season the contents of my market bag change only slightly from week to week. But there has been more change in recent weeks as the days have shortened and the weather has cooled a bit. This week my purchases are a perfect representation of that brief intersection of the seasons when the summer produce is waning and the fall crops are filling the stalls.

I have heard the moment in the harvest, when the lines between the seasons are blurred, referred to as the "shoulder" season. Of course, it occurs four times in a year—most prominently in my climate between Winter and Spring and then Summer and Fall. During these two shoulder seasons, not only is there a change in the ingredients themselves, but there is a marked change in the way food is prepared. Summer food is distinguished by vibrant, fresh flavors and quick preparations, while Autumn and Winter fare tends toward comforting, often hearty and complex flavors.  These cold season foods usually take time and forethought to prepare. During the few weeks when the seasons meet, these distinctions are not so clear. My last post of a creamy pasta with summer squash and walnuts is a good example, as is Soupe au Pistou. I love to cook during this time of year. My cooking really seems spontaneous since the food I am hungry for is largely dictated by the changing weather.

A favorite dish that falls into this shoulder season is soft polenta with sautéed sweet corn. I tend to think of polenta as stick-to-your-ribs, cold-weather food—perfect as an accompaniment to rich braises and hearty ragùs. Frequently when I prepare polenta I like to fold other things into it—sautéed mushrooms for example, or sweet potato purée—cool season foods, for the most part. It would be natural to think of stirring in some sweet corn since polenta is simply dried, ground corn. But for most of the times when polenta feels right, this isn't really an option. And when fresh corn is in season, polenta is not very appealing to me. During the winter there is of course frozen corn, but it isn't quite the same.

Fortunately there is this window—this shoulder season—when the cooling weather that makes polenta seem appropriate coincides with the final week or so of the local corn harvest. I took advantage of this at a recent dinner class where I prepared polenta with fresh sweet corn to accompany one of my favorite dishes of braised pork with fennel and olives. It tasted so good to me that I prepared a batch at home this week to go with some garlicky sautéed Swiss Chard (which is just now returning to the market) and a spice-rubbed chicken breast (I used paprika, cumin and chile powder.  Rub to taste all over the chicken, along with some salt and pepper and follow the directions for a pan-roasted breast.  I used a boneless, skin-on breast this time, but the method is the same.  The cooking time will be less.).

The farmer that I buy my corn from told me this morning that next week will be the last week for corn this year, so my opportunity to prepare this, and other dishes like it, is fast drawing to a close.

Fresh Corn Polenta

2 T. unsalted butter
1 ½ c. fresh corn (from about 2 ears)
2 t. thyme leaves
1 recipe Basic Polenta (see below)
Salt & Pepper

Heat a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the butter. When it foams, add the corn along with the thyme, about ¼ t. salt and freshly ground pepper. Sauté until the corn is just cooked through and is tender—about 3 to 4 minutes.

Remove from the heat. Stir the corn into the hot polenta just before serving. Serves 6 to 8.

Basic Polenta:
1 c. Polenta (organic stone-ground, if available)
salt & pepper
3 T. unsalted butter

Bring a large pot of water to a simmer—this water will be used in the polenta and also as a bain-marie (double boiler) over which to cook the polenta. While the water is coming to a boil, place 1 t. salt in a 1 ½-to 2-qt. stainless bowl. When the pot of water comes to a boil, measure 3 ½ cups of the water into the bowl with the salt. Using a whisk, stir the water into a whirlpool as you slowly pour in the polenta. Keep whisking in the same direction until the polenta is completely blended in and there are no lumps. Set the bowl over the simmering pot of water. Continue to whisk every few moments until you can see that the grains of polenta have begun to absorb the water and are suspended in the liquid and no longer settling in a mass at the bottom of the bowl. This should only take a few minutes. Cover the bowl with foil, sealing the edges securely. Cook for 1 ½ hours, keeping the water at a simmer. Occasionally uncover and stir the polenta with a rubber spatula—adding more hot water if the polenta becomes too stiff. Reseal the foil after each stirring. When finished, the polenta should be thick, soft & smooth and have no raw taste. It may be used immediately or held for up to 4 hours over steaming water. Add more salt and pepper to taste. Stir in the butter just before serving.

(Recipe for Fresh Corn Polenta from Sunday Suppers at Lucques by Suzanne Goin.  Method for Basic Polenta, adapted from The Splendid Table by Lynne Rossetto Kasper.)

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Fettuccine with Cream, Walnuts & Summer Squash

The weather the last few days has been very changeable—typical actually for the month of September in Kansas City. This time of year the temperatures can fluctuate from quite cool to very warm in the space of just a few hours. Saturday morning was pleasantly warm with dappled sunlight and a humid breeze. I went out to spend some time working in my garden, trying to regain some semblance of control. I discovered that my nasturtiums that had struggled all summer—first it was wet and cool and then dry and hot—had finally come into their own.

In the afternoon the weather turned cloudy and cool as a cold front tried to move south over the city. It never really made it--we have been warmer than usual for the past few days now—but on Saturday the cooler evening air along with the earlier fading of the light put me in the mood for something creamy and comforting for dinner.

There are some dishes that are very much "of the moment"—a moment when the harvest of the previous season is lingering as the calendar moves forward into the next. The pasta I made for dinner on Saturday is a good example of one. It is a simple dish of pasta dressed with summer squash and cream. We have beautiful summer squash all summer—it has quite a long season—and never does it occur to me to pair it with cream. The hot weather during which it thrives seems to demand that it be paired with olive oil, lemon, olives, tomatoes and other "Mediterranean" ingredients.  But of course zucchini isn't limited to this narrow palate.  A few years ago, as the summer squash season was winding down, I decided to combine it with walnuts and cream for a quick pasta.  It was the walnuts that made me think of the cream.  The nutty character of the summer squash goes well with walnuts and I frequently put them together.  And since I love walnut cream sauce on pasta...and I tend to think of cream sauces as the weather begins to cool suddenly seemed to be an obvious combination.  I wanted to remember to make it again when the moment was right, so I scribbled in the margin of my notebook that it was just the thing for a cloudy and cool fall evening. 

But since the summer squash vines will quit producing when cooler weather really starts to settle in, the moment for this pasta will be fleeting—and if recent weather is any indication, will be here one day and gone the next.

Fettuccine with Cream, Walnuts & Summer Squash

8 oz. fettuccine
1/2 to 2/3 c. heavy cream
8 to 10 oz. small zucchini or yellow squash, sliced a scant 1/8-inch thick
2 or 3 sprigs thyme, picked
1/4 c. walnuts (1 oz.), toasted and finely chopped
2 to 3 T. unsalted butter
minced Italian flat-leaf parsley
freshly grated Parmesan

Bring 6 quarts of water to the boil in a large stock/pasta pot. Add 2 tablespoons of salt. Add the fettuccine and cook until al dente.

While the pasta cooks, place the squash in a small sauté pan along with the cream and the thyme. Season with salt and pepper. Cover and gently simmer (you don't want the cream to boil over or thicken too much) until tender. This should only take 2 or 3 minutes. When the squash is tender, remove from the heat and keep warm.

When the pasta is ready, drain in a colander, being sure to reserve some of the pasta cooking water. Return the pasta to the pan and add the butter, walnuts, and the cooked squash and cream. Stir and toss to coat the pasta with the cream. Add reserved pasta water as necessary so that the noodles are coated in a fluid sauce. Let the pasta sit for a minute before serving since the starch from the noodles will thicken the cream a bit and tighten the sauce. Toss to recheck the sauce consistency, adding more pasta water if necessary. Taste and correct the seasoning. Serve garnished with parsley and Parmesan. Serves 2.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Poulet Basquaise—Basque-Style Chicken with Peppers, Ham & Tomatoes

Most of my posts this month have either featured classic Italian fare or desserts. To change courses a bit, I thought that today I would share a recipe that I worked on last month for a class on food from the South of France. The Soupe au Pistou and the Gratin of Eggplant and Tomatoes that I posted in August were both from that class. Most of the recipes, including the two just mentioned, were from Provence—a region of France that I love. Having worked and vacationed there, I have first-hand experience of the food. When I teach French food, frequently the recipes are Provençal in origin. In this class though, I branched out and taught one recipe from the Basque region in the southwest of France. That recipe was Poulet Basquaise, a regional favorite of chicken cooked with peppers, ham and tomatoes.

Unfortunately, I have not been to the Basque country, but Poulet Basquaise is a dish that falls into a classic category of dishes called "sautés." I would venture to guess that every region of France has a large collection of traditional dishes that are made according to the sauté model.  Because I love the style of food resulting from this method, I am very familiar with it. Technically, I think that a sauté and a braise are the same thing, but in my mind when I think of a braise, I think of a beef, lamb or pork. To me a sauté is specifically a stew of large, bone-in pieces of chicken or rabbit.

As with a braise, the sauté is a moist heat cooking procedure. The meat and aromatic vegetables (onions, garlic, carrots, celery, etc.) are first browned in some fat, then moistened (with wine, tomato, stock, even water) and then gently simmered until the meat is very tender. Each of these steps is important and executing them with care will produce tender pieces of meat surrounded by a flavorful sauce.

This coming winter I might post one of my "mini" tutorials on the how's and why's of braising, and when I do, I will link it here. But for now, I would just like to emphasize the importance of browning the chicken well. The browning process deposits caramelized meat juices on the bottom of the pan that will add depth of flavor to the final dish, so it should always be done thoroughly and carefully. But with chicken, it is even more important because of the fatty nature of the chicken skin. If chicken only receives a quick, surface browning, the fat in the skin will not be fully rendered. The resulting flabby skin is extremely unappetizing. I am convinced that poorly browned chicken skin is one of the main reasons that so many people refuse to eat it. Maybe it would help to think of chicken skin as being like bacon. If a strip of bacon is not fully rendered, it is floppy and tough. But when it is well-rendered, it is crisp, tender and delicious. The same is true of chicken skin. Even though in a sauté the skin will be softened by the moist cooking process, if properly browned, it will not be floppy and chewy.

My version of Poulet Basquaise is largely influenced by one that I found in Frank Stitt's Southern Table. A cookbook written by a chef from the southern United States might seem a strange place to look for a classic French recipe, but Chef Stitt's food is heavily influenced by his experiences in France. Part of his time there was spent working with the American cookbook author Richard Olney, who lived and worked in Provence. Frank Stitt is one of my favorite chefs and I frequently turn to his books for inspiration.

His Poulet Basquaise differs from most of the recipes that I came across in that it is a refined "chef's" version in a classic style. Most commonly found recipes are "one-pot" affairs.  From the point when the liquid is added, the chicken and vegetables are all cooked together and then served as is. In a classic sauté the vegetables that are cooked with the chicken are used only for flavoring the sauce. When the chicken is tender it is removed from the sauce and the vegetables, which will have become quite soft and will have given up most of their flavor to the sauce, are strained out.

Surface fat is skimmed off of the resulting strained liquid before it is placed back on the stove and boiled until it is reduced to a light sauce consistency. To serve, the chicken and a separately cooked vegetable "garnish" are gently reheated in the finished sauce.

The hallmarks of Poulet Basquaise are loads of peppers and Bayonne ham. Most recipes use fresh sweet peppers—red and yellow....even green. I personally don't like green peppers, so I don't use them. Chef Stitt adds poblano peppers to his version, and I have followed him in this. They add some nice warmth, as well as their deep green color, to the finished dish.

In addition to the bell peppers, the classic dish includes a dried pepper called Piment d'Espelette. From the town of Espelette in the Basque region, Piment d'Espelette is a brilliant red dried pepper that is mildly hot. If you are familiar with the Scoville scale, it is rated at about 4,000. For comparison purposes, the Ancho has a rating of about 2,000 and Cayenne has a rating in the range of 30,000 to 50,000. If you are unable to find it, Ancho Chili powder or New Mexico Red Chili powder are considered to be good substitutes. Since neither is as hot as the Piment d'Espelette, Cayenne or hot pepper flakes can be added as well. Some recipes use Hot Paprika as a substitute. Most traditional recipes use 2 to 3 t. of Piment d'Espelette for the quantities of chicken and peppers in the recipe below. Piment d'Espelette is also used to season the Basque region's famed Bayonne ham. As mentioned above, this ham is a traditional component of Poulet Basquaise, but any un-smoked, air-cured ham (like Parma or Serrano Ham) will do.

The version of Poulet Basquaise that I am posting is of course more work than a one-pot, rustic version, but it is so beautiful when prepared this way, with its glossy sauce and just-tender peppers,

that I think it is worth taking the time to try it at least once. It would make a great meal for entertaining since it can be made a day ahead.  Like all braised dishes, it will taste even better that way.  Since we are moving into cooler weather, and the thought of something stew-like for dinner holds great appeal, now would be a perfect time to try it.  Some Saturday or Sunday afternoon soon, while the bell peppers are still in abundant supply....

Poulet Basquaise
(Basque-Style Chicken with Peppers, Ham & Tomatoes)

1 chicken (3 to 4 lbs.) cut into 8 serving pieces, OR 4 Chicken thighs and 4 Chicken Drumsticks, OR 8 chicken thighs
Salt & Pepper
1 to 2 T. olive oil
1 medium onion (about 6 oz.), thinly sliced
2 oz. Bayonne Ham or Prosciutto, chopped or diced—trimmings are fine
2 to 3 cloves of garlic, peeled and minced
1/4 to 1/2 t. hot pepper flakes
1 t. paprika
1 t. tomato paste, optional
2/3 c. dry white wine
1 lb. vine-ripened tomatoes, peeled & crushed, or 1 14-oz. can tomatoes
Several Sprigs of fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
1/2 to 1 c. chicken stock or low-salt canned broth

1 1/2 lbs. Red & Yellow Bell Peppers—about 4, cored, seeded & cut into strips about 2 or 3 inches long and a scant 1/2-inch wide
1 Poblano pepper, cut as the bell peppers
Salt & Pepper
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 t. Ancho Chili Powder
2 oz. thinly sliced (1/8-inch thick) Bayonne Ham or Prosciutto, cut in 1/4- inch julienne
2 to 3 T. minced Italian Parsley, optional

The Chicken: Pat chicken dry and season with salt and pepper. Heat the oil in a 12-inch heavy sauté pan over moderately high heat. Add the chicken, skin side down, and brown all over, in batches if necessary to keep from crowding the pan. Regulate the heat as necessary to maintain an active sizzle. Browning the chicken will take about 8 to 10 minutes. Transfer chicken to a plate and pour off all but 1 T. of fat from the pan.

Add the onions to the pan and cook until the onion is soft and beginning to turn golden—about 5 to 10 minutes. Add the garlic and ham and cook until the garlic is fragrant. Add the hot pepper flakes, paprika, and tomato paste (if using) and cook another minute or two. Add the wine and increase the heat. Reduce the wine by half, stirring and scraping up the browned caramelized bits from the pan as the wine reduces.

Add the tomatoes, along with the bay and thyme, and bring to a simmer—cook briefly to allow the tomatoes to begin to break down and thicken. Return the chicken to the pan along with any accumulated juices. Add enough chicken stock to come about half to two-thirds of the way up the sides of the chicken.

Reduce the heat to maintain a gentle simmer and cook, covered, until the chicken is cooked through—about 15 for white meat pieces and 35 to 45 minutes for dark meat. Remove the white meat to a platter when it is cooked through.

The Peppers: While the chicken cooks, heat a large sauté pan over medium to medium-high heat. Add a tablespoon or so of oil to the pan. Add the peppers and sauté until they are beginning to soften—about 5 to 10 minutes. It's OK if they are browned in spots, but reduce the heat if they threaten to burn. Add the garlic, ham, and chili powder along with a pinch of salt (be careful, the ham is salty). Toss well, reduce the heat to low and cover. Continue to cook, occasionally stirring and checking to make sure they aren't burning, until the peppers are tender, but still have a bit of texture—another 15 to 20 minutes. Set aside.

Finishing the Chicken: When the dark meat is cooked through and is tender, lift it out of the sauce and add it to the plate with the white meat. Strain the cooking liquid into a large saucepan, pressing hard on the solids to extract as much liquid as possible. Set the sauce pan over medium-high heat. Reduce the sauce by one third to one half, skimming away the fat as the sauce reduces (it is easiest to do this if the pan is set half on and half off the burner). The final consistency of the sauce should be that of heavy cream. You should have about a cup of rich sauce.

To serve the chicken, return the sauce and the chicken to the pan the chicken was cooked in, along with the sautéed peppers and ham. (The dish can be prepared to this point the day before.) Gently heat the chicken and peppers through. Correct the seasoning. Serves 4 to 6.

Traditionally served with rice, but potatoes, couscous, or polenta would be good too.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Plum Pie and the Pursuit of a "Perfectly" Set Fruit Pie

I taught a class this week about pies and tarts. It's a class that I have taught several times before, so there were no new recipes that had to be tested in order to prepare for it. I say "had to be tested" because I always have the feeling that things can be better (see my blog subtitle).  Often, even when I have a recipe that  produces consistent, good results, I continue to tinker away at it.

My victim this time around was my recipe for plum pie. I had a vague memory of tasting the pie the morning after I taught this class the last time (fruit pie makes an excellent breakfast) and thinking that the filling was a bit firmer than I would like. It wasn't gummy, it just didn't have that slight "droop" to the thickened fruit juices that one looks for in a perfect slice of fruit pie. Of course, being just a tad too firm is much preferable to being so runny that the juices run out of the sliced pie.

My original recipe called for two pounds of plums, or six cups of sliced fruit, thickened with two tablespoons each of cornstarch and tapioca. I occasionally make a mixed berry pie that uses these same ratios and I have always been happy with the consistency of the berry filling. Since berries tend to be juicier than plums I felt pretty safe decreasing the thickener to two tablespoons cornstarch and one tablespoon tapioca when I retested the plum pie.

When I cut into the pie about four hours after it came out of the oven, the juices were fairly liquid—the empty place in the pie plate, where the first two slices had been, quickly filled up with the juices from the adjoining slices. I was amazed at the difference one tablespoon of thickener had made. Because I knew that the starches would continue to set up over a twenty four hour period, the next day I cut a slice from the opposite side of the pie. It was perfectly set—soft fruit suspended in thickened, soft-set juices. Now I knew why my original recipe, that produced a pie that sliced perfectly for serving three or four hours after it was done baking, was too firm the next day.

As a last test, I made the pie again with two tablespoons cornstarch and one and one half tablespoons tapioca. At four hours after baking it had a fair amount of flow—but it didn't flood the plate. Some people might call this a perfect slice of pie.

At six hours, it was set well enough that only a little of the thickened juices oozed out—exactly what I was aiming for.

I suppose the lesson here is that the recipe was fine the way it was...unless you are a person like me who is a bit overly obsessed with getting things just right. But I have learned something about how thickeners work in fruit pies—learned by experience, not just from reading about it—and this is valuable to me. I have also learned that if I know when I am going to serve a pie, I can adjust the thickener to get the best results. Now I just have to lose the weight I gained from eating two pies....

Not everyone has tasted plum pie (or even heard of it), so it is a fun pie to teach. If you have never had plum pie, I hope you will give this one a try. If you like fruit pies, I think you will like plum pie. As in the plum crisp, the plums cook into a beautiful jewel-toned reddish purple. Also, because plums have a pleasant sweet-tart character the resulting pie is not too sweet and is very fruity tasting—just what a fruit pie should be.

Plum Pie

1 recipe Basic Pie Dough, rolled out as described for a double crust pie
3/4 c. sugar
1/2 t. allspice
pinch of salt
2 T. cornstarch plus 1 to 2 T. Tapioca (or 3 to 4 T. cornstarch)
2 lbs. plums, pitted, quartered and sliced cross-wise 1/2-inch thick (to make 6 cups fruit)—if using prune plums, simply pit and quarter
1 t. lemon juice
1 T. unsalted butter, cut into 8 pieces
Milk or half & half for brushing
Sugar for sprinkling (preferably coarse sugar)

Preheat the oven to 425°. Combine all of the dry ingredients in a small bowl. In a large bowl, combine the plums with the lemon juice and the dry ingredients. Immediately turn the fruit into the chilled crust, sprinkling any of the dry ingredients in the bottom of the bowl evenly over the fruit. “Dot” the pie with the butter.

Moisten the rim of the crust with water and top with the top crust. Crimp the edge, making sure the two crusts are well sealed. Cut several decorative slits to allow steam to escape. Brush the crust with milk and sprinkle with sugar.

Place the pie on the lowest rack of the oven. Bake the pie at 425° for 20 minutes. Turn the temperature down to 375° and bake for 20 minutes. If the edges are browning too quickly, cover them with a foil ring. Turn the temperature down to 325° and bake until the pie is golden and the juices are bubbling thickly in the center of the pie—another 25 to 35 minutes. Allow the pie to cool to room temperature before cutting (this allows the juices to “firm up”). If desired, re-warm the pie briefly just before cutting.  Serves 8.


• Unfortunately pie baking is not an exact science. Your results are dependent upon your oven—so you need to get to know your oven. The goal is to have a fully cooked filling, a fully cooked bottom crust and a well browned top crust. Runny fillings and soggy bottoms are not inevitable. The regular temperature adjustments in this recipe are intended to maximize the likelihood that you will have success. But you must watch the pie as it bakes and adjust these temperatures and the timing of the temperature changes to fit your oven. The signal for the first reduction in temperature is when the crimped edge is golden brown and the bottom crust is beginning to show color—this will probably happen in the 15 to 25 minute range. In the next ten minutes or so, the crimped edge will probably begin to darken pretty quickly. I usually cover it with a foil ring as that begins to happen. If the juices begin to bubble over, slide a cookie sheet under the pie—but don't do this unless you need to since it will deflect heat away from the bottom crust. Finally, even if the juices are bubbling thickly (indicating that the filling is fully cooked and thickened) if the bottom crust is not golden brown (I use Pyrex pie plates so I can see if the crust is baked), keep the pie in the oven and turn the temperature back up to 375° to 425° until the bottom crust is done—this should only take another 5 to 10 minutes, but watch carefully to make sure the pie doesn't burn.

• This plum pie recipe is a “blue print” for any double crust fruit pie. Follow the same method—simply substitute 6 cups of berries, prepared stone fruit (pitted and cut into chunks or sliced), sliced apples or pears, or rhubarb for the plums; adjust seasoning (spices, citrus zest, extracts) and sugar (anywhere from 1/2 to 1 cup) to your taste. For berries and other very juicy fruits, use 4 T. thickener. For apples, use only 1 to 1 1/2 tablespoons of cornstarch (or substitute 2 to 3 T. of flour for the cornstarch).

Pâte Brisée (Basic Pie Dough)

2 1/2 c. all-purpose flour (300g)
3/4 t. salt
16 T. cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces (227g) )—for a more American-style crust, replace 4 T. of the butter with vegetable shortening
¼ to ½ c. 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. If you are using part vegetable shortening, rub the butter in first, then quickly rub in the shortening. Drizzle 4 T. ice water over the flour/butter mixture. Using your hands, fluff the mixture until it begins to clump, adding more water if necessary. If, when you squeeze some of the mixture it holds together, the dough is finished. 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. Divide the clump of dough into two pieces, and wrap each piece in plastic wrap, pressing the dough into a thick disk. Chill for at least 30 minutes.

To roll out a bottom crust, let one of the disks of dough warm up for a moment or two. Butter and flour a 9-inch pie plate and set it aside. Flour the work surface and the rolling pin. Begin rolling from the center of the dough outward. After each stroke, rotate the dough a quarter turn—always making sure that there is sufficient flour to keep the dough from sticking. Keep rolling and turning until you have a round of dough that is about 1/8 to 1/6 –inch in thickness. Using a lid or an upside-down bowl, trim the dough to form a 12-inch circle. Brush off the excess flour and fold the dough circle in half. Slide the outspread fingers of both hands under the dough and gently lift it and transfer it to the prepared pie plate. Unfold the dough and ease it into the pan being careful not to stretch it. Chill the pie shell for at least 1/2 hour.

Roll out the top crust. Trim the dough as for the bottom crust. Chill on a cookie sheet for at least 1/2 hour.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Late Summer Panzanella

The first time I ever heard of Panzanella was years ago on a Saturday morning—long before I started cooking professionally. I was watching Lorenza de'Medici cook on PBS. I remember that all of her food looked very good, but to be honest, I was not particularly tempted by the Panzanella—a traditional Tuscan bread salad. The idea of soaking stale bread in water in order to soften it before squeezing it out and crumbling it over a bowl of tomatoes (even though they were beautiful summer tomatoes) didn't appeal to me. I don't remember what else, if anything, was in her very traditional version except for a generous amount of Tuscan olive oil. Now, looking back on that salad, my mouth waters as I think about all of those wonderful ripe tomato juices mingling with the olive oil, soaking into the good Tuscan bread.... Surprisingly, of all the things she made during that episode, the panzanella is the only thing I remember.

Panzanella was originally a way of rescuing stale bread.  Wasting bread would have been unthinkable.  It is an ingenious idea to make a salad that takes advantage of the inherent capacity of old bread to capture and retain vegetable juices that might otherwise be left swimming in the bottom of a bowl. Both the bread and the juices are saved. But, come to think of it, isn't that what we often use bread for? Doesn't everyone love to swipe a nice, substantial piece of bread through a flavorful sauce or a dish of fruity olive oil?

Since that long ago Saturday morning, not only have I seen many traditional versions of panzanella (always with bread, tomatoes and olive oil), I have come across all manner of bread salads styled after panzanella. Chef's love to play with this type of salad, using the bread to absorb vegetable juices, vinaigrettes and even the pan deglazings that result from roasting meat. Michael Chiarello in his book Casual Cooking presents a foursome of panzanellas that feature the produce of each of the four seasons—only the summer version uses tomatoes. Several years ago Gourmet Magazine published a recipe by Chef Frank Stitt for Cornbread Panzanella. This version uses all of the traditional vegetable ingredients, except it substitutes Stitt's native southern cornbread for the yeast bread. It has become one of my favorites.

I don't very often have stale bread on hand.  I freeze what I'm not going to eat before it gets stale. But to make panzanella, you don't really have to have stale bread—you can create it by cutting up fresh or day old bread and toasting it in the oven. Michael Chiarello calls this homemade "stale" bread "panzanella croutons." To make them, use any artisanal loaf that has a nice open crumb. Ciabatta is the usual choice (and it is a good choice), but I prefer focaccia because it is a well seasoned bread and you don't have to trim away any tough crusts.

To me the most amazing thing about panzanella is how refreshing it can be...even light. I expect that a salad made up in a large part of olive oil-drenched bread will be heavy. But somehow it is not. When I make mine, I wait to add the vinaigrette until the bread has been first tossed with all of the vegetables and their juices. This way the bread absorbs the light vegetables juices before it starts to take up the olive oil in the vinaigrette. I think the other thing that makes this a light and refreshing salad is the presence of the raw red onion and cucumber. If added in thin slices, these add a juicy, delicate crunch.

Panzanella makes a fine first course salad. For a light lunch, add a slice of cheese and you're set. Panzanella also makes a nice side to grilled or roasted meats for dinner. Frank Stitt serves his cornbread panzanella as a side to grilled lamb. We had a traditional summer version for dinner the other night with a pan-roasted chicken breast:

Late Summer Panzanella

For the Panzanella Croutons:
8 to 9 cups cubed (1/2-inch) day old bread—preferably focaccia, but any good Italian or French bread with an open crumb will do. If something other than focaccia is chosen, you will need to trim away the hard crusts. You should have about 10 oz. of cubed bread.
3 T. olive oil

Toss bread cubes with the olive oil and spread on a baking sheet. Bake in a 400° oven until the bread is crisp and light golden, but still soft inside—about 10 minutes. Let cool. If making ahead, store air-tight.

For the Salad:
4 bell peppers—2 red and 2 yellow, if available—if not, use all red
2 T. red-wine vinegar
1 T. Sherry vinegar
Salt & Pepper, or to taste
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
4 large vine-ripened tomatoes (2 lb.), peeled, seeded, and cut into 1-inch pieces—juices reserved
2 cloves garlic, smashed to a purée with a pinch of salt
1 small red onion, quartered lengthwise, thinly sliced crosswise and rinsed (you will have about 1 to 1 1/3 c. sliced onion)
12 oz. cucumber, halved lengthwise, seeded and thinly sliced crosswise (peel the cucumber first if the skin is tough)—you will have about 2 c.
3 T. capers, rinsed
16 large fresh basil leaves, cut in a wide chiffonade
3 handfuls (about 3 oz.) arugula, large stems removed and torn into bite-sized pieces

Roast the bell peppers on racks of gas burners over high heat, turning with tongs, until skins are blackened, 10 to 12 minutes (or broil peppers on a broiler pan about 5 inches from heat, turning occasionally, about 15 minutes). Transfer peppers to a platter and let cool. When cool enough to handle, peel peppers, discarding stems and seeds, and reserving any juices. Cut the peppers into 1-inch pieces.

Whisk together vinegars in a large bowl and season with salt & pepper. Add the oil in a slow stream, whisking. Set aside.

Place the peppers and tomatoes in a large bowl along with any reserved juices (see note). Add the garlic and gently stir to make sure the garlic is dispersed in the liquid. Add the onions, cucumbers, capers and basil.

Toss to combine. Add the croutons and toss again. Pour the vinaigrette over all and toss well. Taste and season with salt and pepper. Allow the salad to sit for 15 minutes or so to allow the croutons to soften.

When the croutons are at the point you prefer (still with a bit of texture, or quite soft), add the arugula and toss.  Taste the salad and correct the seasoning and texture by adding more vegetable juices (if you have them--see note), olive oil or sherry vinegar.  Add more salt & pepper, if necessary.  Serve, garnished with shaved Parmesan, if you like. Serves 8 to 10.

Note:  Set aside any juices in excess of 1/3 cup and add to the salad only as needed to further soften the bread.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Pasta with Eggplant, Peppers, Olives & Capers

With every passing season I acquire a few new pasta recipes to add to my pile of favorites. I know I have mentioned before that I never seem to tire of pasta. To me, it is the ultimate one dish meal...a great background for showcasing the ever changing parade of the vegetable harvest.

This time of year, I love pastas that feature eggplant, tomatoes and sweet peppers. Last summer while I was preparing for a class featuring the cookbook Local Flavors by Deborah Madison, I tried her recipe for Robust End-of-the-Summer Spaghetti. As one might expect from the title, this pasta includes all three of these late summer vegetables. The "robustness" comes from the flavorful additions of salty accents, like capers and olives, a generous amount of dried oregano and an extended simmer to blend all of these great flavors.

Because the class I was working on was based on her book, I made the pasta the first time exactly as directed by her recipe. And it was very good. So good that, as we have moved into eggplant, tomato and pepper season this year, I have made it at least four, maybe five, times. But since it is no longer necessary that I follow the recipe exactly, I have been tweaking it a little each time I have made it. 

First, because I didn't have any anchovies and parsley on hand, I left them out.  I love anchovies, but I liked this dish just fine without them.  Then, instead of charring the peppers to soften them a bit before cooking them with the onions, I decided to add them raw to the pan with the onions. The onions cook a bit longer this way and have a chance to caramelize a little while the peppers soften. 

At some point I made the switch from a yellow onion to a red onion.   This was probably because that was what I had in my pantry, but I like red onions and peppers together.  The last time I made the sauce, I decided to dice and roast the eggplant.  In the original version, Madison slices and broils the eggplant and then cuts the cooked eggplant slices crosswise into strips before adding them to the sauce.  

I liked my last version so much that I thought I would write it down—for future reference for myself and also for my best friend from college. I made this pasta while I was visiting her last month and she and her family liked it so much that she requested the recipe.

Now, as I compare this recipe to Deborah Madison's original, I'm not sure she would recognize it as her recipe. But it is close enough that I should definitely give her credit for the inspiration. There was nothing wrong with the original recipe, it is just that, like any experienced cook, I have preferred methods and taste preferences that govern the way I choose to execute a recipe.  I hope you will give this pasta a try and that you will feel free to tweak it to your heart's content--making it your own so that you can add it to your pile of favorites.

Pasta with Eggplant, Peppers, Olives & Capers

3 T. olive oil, divided—plus more for finishing
1 eggplant (about 12 oz. to 1 lb.), topped & tailed and cut in a 1/2- to 3/4-inch dice
salt & pepper, to taste
1/2 a medium red onion, diced (about 1/4-inch)
1 red or yellow bell peppers, trimmed and diced (about 1/3-inch)
1 cloves garlic, minced
1 lb. vine ripened tomatoes, peeled, seeded (juices reserved) and chopped
1 1/2 T. capers, rinsed
1/4 cup mixed green & black olives, pitted and coarsely chopped
1/2 T. dried oregano
1/2 lb. pasta (penne, rigatoni or gemelli)
1/3 cup finely grated pecorino (1 oz.)

Toss the eggplant in a tablespoon of olive oil and season with salt & pepper. Spread the eggplant on a baking sheet and roast 425°, stirring once about half to two-thirds of the way through the cooking time. The eggplant is done when it is golden and tender—about 20 to 25 minutes total. Set aside.

While the eggplant roasts, heat 2 T. olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the onion and peppers along with a generous pinch of salt. Sauté until the onions and peppers are just tender—about 10 to 15 minutes. The onions will begin to caramelize a bit, but if the vegetables begin to color too quickly, reduce the heat.  Add the garlic and cook until fragrant.

Measure the reserved tomato juices and add enough water to make 1/4 cup. Add the tomatoes, along with their juices, to the pan with the onions and peppers and bring to a simmer. Add the eggplant, capers, olives and oregano.

Season with salt & pepper and gently simmer (uncovered) for about a half hour, stirring occasionally, to allow the flavors to blend.

Bring 6 quarts of water to the boil in a large stock/pasta pot. Add 2 tablespoons of salt. Add the pasta and cook until al dente. When the pasta is ready, drain in a colander, being sure to reserve some of the pasta cooking water. Add the pasta to the sauce and toss well, adding some of the pasta water if the sauce seems dry. Drizzle with a little olive oil and toss again. Serve with a generous shower of Pecorino. Serves 2 to 3 (recipe easily doubles to serve 5 or 6).