Friday, December 30, 2011

Smoked Salmon Rillettes

For my final post of 2011 I wanted to share one of my very favorite appetizers—Smoked Salmon Rillettes. This dish is simple to prepare and can be served in either an elegant or a rustic setting. It would be perfect for sharing at a potluck or serving at your own formal (or not-so-formal) dinner. Hopefully I'm posting it just in time for those New Year's Eve celebrations.

Rillettes are a rustic kind of pâté. Traditionally they are made with pork, duck/goose, rabbit...even game. Tough, sinewy and frequently fatty cuts of meat (or combination of meats) are cooked using the slow, tenderizing process of the braise (using stock, water and/or wine) or, more frequently, the confit (submerged in fat—lard or duck/goose fat—and cooked very gently and slowly). The resulting meltingly tender meat is deboned, shredded and combined with some of the braising liquid or confit fat and packed into a terrine or crock. The chilled rillettes are then served with crusty baguettes. If you have ever tasted rillettes, you probably remember them...they are unbelievably tasty and dangerously addictive.

When I was in cooking school we were taught how to make a "modern" adaptation of rillettes using a combination of fresh and smoked mackerel. From my description of rillettes in general you have probably picked up on the fact that rillettes are not a low-fat food. In fact, I would say that one of the hallmarks of rillettes is their unctuous texture—due, in not a small part, to their fat content. The transformation of rillettes into a preparation made with mackerel is quite logical since mackerel is a very fatty fish. The addition of the smoked mackerel adds a salty quality that nicely echoes the characteristic saltiness of the confited meats and poultry that are typically used to make the traditional versions of rillettes.

Later in my career when I came across a recipe for rillettes made with salmon (also a fatty fish), I immediately gave it a try. It was delicious and I fell in love with it. The recipe was from Alfred Portale's 12 Season's Cookbook and it uses the same method as the mackerel rendition that I had first tasted in London: The fresh fish is poached, flaked and folded into a mixture of puréed smoked fish, soft butter, crème fraiche, lemon and herbs. For a long time, I was very happy with this version...and would have remained so if a friend and colleague hadn't shown me a recipe for salmon rillettes from Anne Kearney that ran in the NY Times several years ago.

The recipe for salmon rillettes that I make today is a combination of the things I like best from Anne Kearney's recipe for Double Salmon Rillettes and Alfred Portale's recipe. Most significantly, the smoked salmon is not puréed in Ms. Kearney's recipe. Instead, sliced smoked salmon is cut into thin strips

and folded together with the flaked poached salmon. This gives a rustic, ropey texture to the final dish—very much in keeping with the look and texture of traditional rillettes. The other "genius" moment in her recipe involves reducing the liquid the fish was poached in to a syrup which is then added to the rillettes. This addition adds depth and richness to the final dish.

When you make salmon rillettes, remember that the quantities given in the recipe are guidelines. You should play with this recipe and make it your own. Some recipes use equal quantities of fresh and smoked salmon (Alfred Portale's, for example) and some use half as much smoked as fresh (like Anne Kearney's). My preference is somewhere in the middle—probably closer to equal quantities. The crème fraiche and butter too should be added to suit your preferences for taste and consistency. Just start with the recommended amount and then add more if you like—or, next time add less. And the lemon and herbs should always be added to taste.

I will end this my final post of the year with a simple observation. My experience with discovering a new and better version of rillettes when I was already very satisfied with the recipe I had illustrates what is I think one of the great lessons of cooking—at least for us "perfectionist" types. That is, that I should never think that any one version of a dish I love contains the be all and end all of methods. There will always be new and different ways of doing things....and learning these things will only improve my skills. This is one of the things I have grown to truly love about cooking. It is a never ending adventure and a constant learning process. It is never boring—at least it doesn't have to be. So as we end one year and begin another, I'll wish you not only a Happy New Year(!), but also "Happy Cooking!"

Rillettes de Saumon Fumé
(Smoked Salmon Rillettes)

1/2 lb. skinless salmon fillet, cut into 2-inch chunks (see note)
Kosher salt and freshly ground white pepper to taste
1 large or 2 small shallots, finely diced
5 T. very soft unsalted butter, divided
1 1/2 c. dry white wine
6 oz. smoked salmon, thinly sliced and cut into thin strips
1/4 c. crème fraiche or sour cream
grated zest of 1 lemon
juice of 1/2 lemon, more or less to taste
1 T. chopped fresh dill—more or less to taste—plus more sprigs for garnish
1 T. finely minced fresh chives—more or less to taste

Season the salmon with salt and pepper. Smear the bottom of a medium sauté pan with 1 T. of soft butter and add the wine and shallots. Add the salmon

and bring to a simmer. Cook until the salmon is almost done—it will flake and have a trace of translucence in the center.  (In my experience the salmon is just about perfectly cooked if you do the following: Once the wine has come to a good simmer, cover the pan and remove it from the heat. The salmon should be just right after about 7 to 10 minutes—break a piece open to check.) Lift the salmon out (leaving as many shallots behind as possible) and place it in a bowl; set aside. Bring the poaching liquid to a boil and reduce to a syrup (you’ll have about 2 T.).

Strain the reduced liquid over the salmon, pressing hard on the solids to extract as much liquid as possible. Let cool.

Add the remaining ingredients to the cooled salmon and gently fold until the mixture is homogenous (the rillettes will be chunky and the poached salmon will break down into shreds). Make sure that the butter is very soft when you add it; cream it before adding in a separate bowl—or against the side of the mixing bowl—if it is not.

Taste and adjust the seasonings with salt and pepper and lemon juice. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or for up to 24 hours.

Serve on crostini or crackers as individual prepared hors d’oeuvres or in a bowl surrounded by toasted sliced baguette and crackers. Garnish the individual hors d'oeuvres or the bowl with sprigs of dill.

Makes about 2 1/2 cups, serving 8 as an appetizer.

Note: I think salmon rillettes are at their best when made with fatty King Salmon.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Almond Crescent Cookies

I have been making Christmas cookies for as long as I can remember. Over the years I have amassed quite a collection of recipes, but Spritz cookies—my childhood favorite—always remained at the top of the list. A few years ago I ran across a recipe for Almond Crescents in Rose Levy Beranbaum's Rose's Christmas Cookies. This cookie has supplanted Spritz cookies as the one cookie that I have to make every matter how busy I am. Even this year—which has been busier than recent seasons—I have still managed to make a couple of batches of crescents. So it seems fitting to end my short parade of Christmas cookie posts with this, my favorite Christmas cookie to bake and give.

An unassuming little cookie, the crescent is generally not the first cookie that people gravitate towards when they approach the cookie platter (unless they have had one before). But it is always the one people remark upon. Similarly, I was not particularly attracted to them the first time I flipped through Beranbaum's book. Fooled by their plain and simple appearance and a bit put off by the rather fussy process of molding the crescents, I too almost passed them by.

Forming the little crescents is indeed a bit of a tedious task (although the dough itself is extremely easy to make), but as it turns out, one of the things I love about these cookies is the precise work of portioning and forming the crescents. It forces me to slow down for a bit during this perennially busy season and enjoy the moment. I always put on my favorite Christmas movie—White Christmas—and hum along as I work. I know the movie by heart, so I don't have to have my eyes on the screen all the time. Although, I admit to having to stop and sit down to watch Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye do the "Sisters" number—I never get tired of it. And when Rosemary Cluny sings "Love, You Didn't Do Right by Me"—that also requires a pause in my work...such an amazing voice.

All and all, a very pleasant and quiet way to spend an evening during the holidays. And the results are more than worth it. Tender and with a delicate crunch, these cookies have an addictive, faintly cinnamon-y, almond flavor. Everyone I have ever given them to remembers them and seems very pleased when they find a few tucked into their gift once again.

Almond Crescents

2 oz. (2/3 c.) blanched sliced almonds
1/3 c. (2.25 oz.) sugar
1 c. (2 sticks) unsalted butter
2 c. plus 1 T. (8.25 oz.) all-purpose flour
1/4 t. salt
1/2 c. sugar
1/2 t. cinnamon

In a food processor fitted with the metal blade, process the almonds and the sugar until the almonds are ground very finely.

Cut the butter into a few pieces and add. Process until smooth and creamy.

Scrape the sides of the bowl and add the flour and salt. Pulse just until the flour is incorporated. Scrape the dough onto a piece of plastic wrap, press into a thick disc, wrap it tightly and refrigerate for about 2 hours or until the dough is firm.

Combine the 1/2 c. sugar and cinnamon and set aside.

Divide the dough into 6 equal portions (use a scale to divide the dough so that your crescents will all be the same size). Work with 1 section at a time, keeping the remainder of the dough refrigerated. Knead the dough between lightly floured hands until malleable. Roll the dough into a 10-inch cylinder.

Cut into 10 1-inch segments.

Take one segment at a time and roll it into a 3/4-inch ball. On a lightly floured counter, or between your palms, roll each ball into a cylinder with tapered ends, about 3 inches in length and 1/2-inch thick in the middle. Form each cylinder into a crescent shape and place on an ungreased or parchment-lined cookie sheet 1 inch apart (30 cookies will fit on a standard-sized half sheet pan/cookie sheet).

Bake the cookies for 14 to 16 minutes in a 325° oven until set but not brown. Cool the cookies on the sheet for 10 minutes (if you try to lift them off immediately, they will fall apart).

While they are still warm, use a small, angled metal spatula or pancake turner to lift them from the sheets and dip them, 1 at a time, in the cinnamon sugar, turning gently to coat all over. 

When the cookies are completely cool, transfer to an air tight container for storage. Makes 5 dozen cookies.

(Recipe from Rose’s Christmas Cookies, by Rose Levy Beranbaum)

Christmas cookie platter with (among other things) Almond Crescents, Cucidati, Cranberry-Pistachio Biscotti & Scottish Shortbread Fans.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Chocolate Almond Toffee


Last year I posted a recipe for the "Best-Ever Nut Brittle" that originally ran in the December 2007 issue of Food & Wine. One of the things that makes it truly the "best-ever" is the use of roasted salted nuts. So when a couple of years later the same magazine ran a recipe for Chocolate-Almond Toffee using roasted salted almonds, I sat up and took notice.

The recipe I am posting today is a slightly altered version of that Food & Wine recipe. I love the use of salted nuts and the addition of even more salt, but I wasn't crazy about the fact that the finished toffee was completely encased in chocolate. As strange as it might sound, that's simply too much chocolate—it overwhelms the flavor of the toffee. My version (like a lot of versions) only has chocolate on the top.

Another significant change I made to the recipe was to substitute a small amount of corn syrup for some of the granulated sugar. Corn syrup helps to prevent re-crystallization of the sugar. If you are new to candy making and the process of cooking sugar syrups, check out last year's brittle post for some other pointers on how to prevent crystallization.

The original recipe gave instructions for pouring the toffee into an 8- by 11-inch pan. This results in a finished toffee that is quite thick. I have made the recipe in a 9- by 13-inch pan, and while this is somewhat better, it is still too thick for me. I find that I like it best when it is on the thin side, so I like to pour it onto a half sheet pan, covering about 2/3 of the pan. This is obviously a personal preference—you should make the toffee in a thickness that pleases you.

As you pour out the hot toffee, move the saucepan back and forth over the prepared sheet pan so that the candy is spread in as even a layer as is possible. Even though it is quite fluid, it tends to want to stay where you pour it. If you pour it out into a pile in the center of the sheet, it will spread out somewhat, but it will still be very thick in the center and much thinner toward the edges. Unfortunately, it is difficult to spread or otherwise manipulate with a spatula (or spoon) once it has been poured out.

During the entire toffee making (or any candy making) process, treat the hot sugar syrup with respect—giving it your full attention. Keep small children and animals, as well as anything else that might distract you, out of the kitchen. The final temperature of the candy is 300° F. This will inflict a serious burn on any flesh that it touches.

Finally, I wanted to call attention to the fact that the recipe calls for both coarsely chopped and finely chopped almonds. The coarse almonds are added to the toffee, while those that are finely chopped are scattered over the chocolate. It is not necessary to chop the coarse and fine separately—it can all be done at once. Simply put all of the almonds on the cutting board

and begin chopping until all of the nuts are chopped and the largest pieces are "coarsely chopped". The chopping process will have naturally produced coarsely and finely chopped bits.

Scoop all of the nuts into a dish and shake it back and forth and side to side. The larger pieces will percolate to the top of the dish. Lift out three ounces of these larger pieces. Return the remaining ounce of almonds (most will be very fine) to the board and run your knife through them a few times until all are fine.

I am not certain that I would presume to call the toffee I make the "best-ever"...but I do think that it is awfully good. Suffice it to say that I am no longer on the lookout for a toffee recipe. This is the toffee that I will be making for my family and friends for many holiday seasons to come.

Chocolate Almond Toffee

1 1/3 c. sugar (267 g)
2 T. water
8 oz. (2 sticks) unsalted butter, sliced
2 T. light corn syrup (41 g)
1 t. kosher salt
2 t. vanilla
1 c. roasted salted almonds (4 oz.), 3/4 coarsely chopped and 1/4 finely chopped
4 oz. bittersweet chocolate, chopped

Line a half sheet pan with aluminum foil. Butter the foil, or spray with spray release ("Pam"). Set aside.

In a large saucepan, combine the sugar, water, butter and corn syrup and cook over moderate heat until the sugar dissolves. Increase the heat to medium high and bring to a boil.

If there are any sugar crystals visible on the side of the pan, brush the pan's sides with a pastry brush dipped in water, repeating until any sugar crystals disappear. Continue to cook, stirring constantly, until the toffee is deeply golden and registers 300°F on a candy thermometer—about 10 minutes.

Remove from the heat and carefully stir in the vanilla and salt. Use a long handled spoon—the mixture will bubble vigorously. Stir in the coarsely chopped almonds, then immediately scrape the brittle onto the prepared pan. Tilt the pan to spread evenly.

Let cool for 10 minutes. Scatter the chopped chocolate over the toffee and spread into a thin layer when melted.

Scatter finely chopped almonds evenly over the chocolate.

Let cool completely. Break into pieces and store air-tight.  Makes about 1 1/2 pounds Chocolate Almond Toffee.

Note: The toffee goes together more easily if you place the coarsely chopped nuts in a 300° oven while the syrup boils—that way the nuts won’t bring down the temperature of the candy syrup when they are added. 

Update 12/31/13:  In a recent cookie class a student suggested that it might help the candy to spread more quickly and evenly if I also warmed the prepared baking sheet in the 300° oven.  It does!  A fabulous idea.  I wish I had gotten her name so I could thank her and give her credit!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Italian Fig Cookies (Cucidati)

I finally got around to starting my annual Christmas cookie baking last Sunday. There are many years when it is likely that it would never happen at all if it weren't for the fact that I teach a class that features eight of my favorite Christmas cookies. (This is one of those years...) I have already posted two of the cookies that I teach in my class—Scottish Shortbread and Cranberry-Pistachio Biscotti. Today I thought I would share the recipe for Italian Fig Cookies (Cucidati).

I found this recipe in Gourmet magazine almost ten years ago. For several years running (2000 through 2006) Gourmet Magazine's December issue was filled with recipe after recipe of amazing Christmas cookies. I looked forward to that issue's arrival every year—many of my favorite Christmas cookies come from those issues. (I am still so sad that Gourmet is no more.)

Cucidati are the original Fig Newton—only they are so much better. Besides figs, cucidati typically include other dried fruits like raisins (dark or light), currants and/or dates. In addition to the dried fruit, most recipes also call for finely chopped nuts (almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, pine nuts, pecans...). The finished filling is fragrant with orange—fresh zest, juice and/or candied peel—spices and spirits (brandy, rum, whiskey...). To my mind, a Fig Newton is a kid's cookie...Cucidati are for grownups.

The fig filling is encased in a soft, tender cookie crust. To make the cookies, the dough is rolled out and cut into strips that are 1/8-inch thick and 3 1/4-inch wide.

The filling is arranged in a narrow mound down the center of each strip and the dough on either side of the filling is lifted up and over and then sealed so that the filling is wrapped in a thin tube of dough. These "logs" are then cut into short lengths to form the individual cookies.

The description of how to roll out the dough in the recipe may seem a bit convoluted, but the details of rolling to a specific size, then trimming and then cutting are to help you create strips that are exactly 3 1/4-inch wide and 10 inches long. This size strip will hold exactly 1/3 cup of the filling. But once you have made these cookies a few times, you will have a feel for how much filling to use and you can then roll the strips (of any length) in the way that works best for you (so long as it doesn't create too many scraps—the scraps can be re-rolled once, but more than that and they will be tough).

The recipe tells you to chill the dough until it is firm, but even when well-chilled it will still be soft and a bit sticky. When rolling it out, make sure your work surface and your rolling pin are well floured. (You can always brush away the excess flour with a dry pastry brush.) Because the dough is so soft, it is easiest to lift it up and over the filling if you have a long, narrow spatula. Slide the spatula under the edge of the dough and use it to lay the entire edge over the strip of filling in one motion. At that point the other side (which will have been moistened to help it adhere) can be lifted in the same manner. Roll the log over and rock it gently against your work surface so that the dough is well-sealed.

The logs can be cut immediately, but because the dough is so soft, a quick chill of 15 minutes or so in the freezer will make it so that they are much easier to cut cleanly and neatly. I have never done it, but I imagine that the uncut logs could be frozen (just like a traditional "slice and bake" cookie). You would then be in a position to have a few warm Cucidati any time the mood strikes....

Italian Fig Cookies

4 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup plus 2 T. sugar
1 T. baking powder
1 t. Salt
2 sticks unsalted butter, chilled and cut into 1-inch chunks
2 large eggs
1 1/2 t. vanilla
1/2 cup milk

Place flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt in a food processor and process to blend. Add the butter and pulse until the mixture looks like coarse meal. Turn butter and flour mixture into a large bowl. Whisk together the eggs, vanilla and milk. Drizzle over the flour mixture and stir with a fork to form a dough. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead a few times. Flatten the dough into a rectangle between sheets of plastic. Chill until firm—at least 8 hours.

9 oz. (1 heaping cup, packed) dried figs (preferably White Turkish), stems discarded
3 3/4 oz. (3/4 cup) golden raisins
zest and juice of one orange
4 oz. (3/4 cup) whole almonds, toasted and finely chopped
3 oz. (3/4 cup) walnuts, toasted and finely chopped
1 t. ground cinnamon
1/4 t. ground nutmeg
1/4 t. ground cloves
3/4 c. honey
1/4 c. brandy, dark rum or marsala

Place the figs, raisins and orange juice in the food processor and process until finely chopped. Transfer to a large bowl and add the remaining ingredients. Stir until well combined. Cover with plastic wrap and chill at least 8 hours.

To form the cookies, divide the rectangle of dough in half and return one half to the refrigerator while you work with the first half. Roll the rectangle of dough out on a well-floured surface into a 12- by 15-inch rectangle that is about 1/8-inch thick. Trim to a 10- by 13-inch rectangle (chill the trimmings). Cut this rectangle into 4 10- by 3¼-inch strips. Arrange 1/3 cup filling in a 1-inch wide log down the length of each strip. Working with one strip at a time, lightly moisten the one of the long edges of the dough with water. Fold the opposite edge up and over the filling and then fold the moistened edge up so that the filling is enclosed in the dough. Roll the cookie logs over so the seam is down and press lightly to make sure the seam is well sealed. Repeat with the remaining 3 strips of dough and filling. Cut the logs crosswise with a sharp floured knife into 1-inch lengths. Arrange the cookies ½-inch apart on parchment lined baking sheets. Roll out the remaining dough with the trimmings in the same manner to make more cookies.

Bake the cookies in a 350° oven until set and golden—about 16 to 20 minutes. Transfer the cookies to a wire rack to cool.

Makes about 80 1-inch cookies. If you prefer a larger cookie, cut the logs into 1½-inch lengths to get 4 to 5 dozen cookies.

The cookies may be decorated in a number of ways:
• Dredge the cooled cookies with powdered sugar.
• Just before baking, brush each cookie lightly with egg wash and sprinkle with sanding sugar, turbinado sugar or colored decorative sugar.
• When the cookies are cool, drizzle with a glaze made of 1 c. powdered sugar, 1/2 t. vanilla and 1 1/2 to 2 T. orange juice.

(Recipe adapted from Gourmet, December 2002)