Monday, October 26, 2015

Tortilla Española...simplicity at its best

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tortilla Española
(Tortilla de Patatas)

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

Use a mandoline to slice the potatoes

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 19, 2015

Roasted Banana & Chocolate Flake Ice Cream with Salted Butter Caramel Sauce

I admit that it might seem a bit odd to be posting a recipe for ice cream just as we are entering the cooler months of the year.  But I made this particular ice cream for a client a couple of weeks ago and it has been in my mind ever since.  They loved it...and making and serving it reminded me of how very much I like it.  Besides, to me ice cream is seasonless...I could probably enjoy a big bowl of it during a snow storm (in front of a roaring fire...wrapped in a big blanket...). 

I have adapted my recipe for Roasted Banana and Chocolate Flake Ice Cream from David Lebovitz's Roasted Banana Ice Cream recipe.  It is an unusual recipe in that it contains no eggs and no heavy cream.  While I tend to use less cream in my ice creams than most, I typically use a higher proportion of egg yolks.  The more yolks used, the smaller the ice crystals in the frozen custard.  This in turn gives a creamier result.   If anyone other than Lebovitz were the source of this recipe I wouldn't have even looked at it twice.  But since he is an ice cream maker par excellence, I decided to give it a try.  And I was not disappointed.  This simple...and very lean...recipe produces a smooth, creamy, rich tasting ice "cream" that will be satisfying to anyone who loves ice cream. I wish I knew why it worked...  I can only guess that it has something to do with the properties of a banana.

The changes I have made to the basic recipe are fairly minor...and purely a matter of personal preference.  I added a touch of honey...and a bit more milk.  I think honey (or any invert sugar) is always a good addition to an ice cream since it adds body and also contributes to a creamier texture.  I added more milk because without it the roasted banana base seemed excessively thick.  The biggest modification that I made was in the addition of some melted chocolate...which forms random chunks and flakes when drizzled and folded into the frozen base.  I suppose you could make a case that this is now an entirely different recipe...but it really isn't.  It's still all about the bananas.  And chocolate is wonderful with bananas.  When dispersed throughout the ice cream the chocolate bits add interest and variation without getting in the way of the great banana flavor.  

Whenever I make this ice cream, I almost always make Lebovitz's Salted Butter Caramel Sauce to serve with it.  You can of course make it and enjoy it all on its own, but there's something about the combination of bananas and chocolate and caramel that is pretty hard to resist.  The recipe for the caramel is from Lebovitz's newest cookbook, My Paris Kitchen.  It is without a doubt the best recipe for caramel sauce I have ever come across...I could devote an entire post to it.  It is liquid—but still has nice body—at room temperature...and it is soft, slightly stretchy and spoonable when cold.  Perfect. 

The only change I have made has to do with the method.  Lebovitz makes it using a wet caramel (the sugar is first moistened with water, then brought to a boil and cooked until it caramelizes).  I choose to make it using a dry caramel (the sugar is melted without any added water in a heavy saucepan set over high heat—it caramelizes as it melts).  As far as I am aware, both methods will yield the same end product, but a dry caramel is much faster to make than a wet caramel. For a very nice tutorial on making a dry caramel, check out Lebovitz's post on the subject.

I mentioned at the first that I had served this ice cream to some clients a couple of weeks ago.  When I made it for them, I served a scoop of ice cream on top of a thin circle of dense, fudge-y brownie....and drizzled the whole thing with the salted butter caramel sauce.  It was fantastic.  I used a 2/3 batch (so it would be thin) of one of my favorite brownie recipes...but any homemade (please don't serve this delicious homemade ice cream and sauce on a mix brownie....) fudge-y brownie should work, as long as it isn't too thick.

As delicious as this little Sundae was, it falls firmly into the arena of gilding the lily.  I have also served the ice cream and sauce with chocolate cookies.  But those too, are not really necessary...unless your goal is to emphasize the chocolate aspect of this dessert.  For myself, I find that the ice cream and sauce...all by themselves...are perfectly satisfying.  

Roasted Banana & Chocolate Flake Ice Cream

3 medium-sized ripe bananas (about 1 1/4 lb.), peeled
1/3 c. light brown sugar
1 T. butter (salted or unsalted), cut into small pieces
2 c. whole milk, divided
2 T. granulated sugar
2 T. honey
1/2 t. vanilla extract
1 1/2 t. lemon juice
1/4 t. coarse salt
2 1/2 oz. bittersweet chocolate, melted

Preheat oven to 400° F. Slice the bananas into half inch pieces and toss them with the brown sugar and butter in a 2-quart baking dish.

Bake, stirring once or twice (being careful to scrape down any caramelized sugars on the sides that threaten to burn), until the bananas are browned and cooked through and the liquid is thick and syrupy—about 35 to 40 minutes.

Scrape the bananas and the syrup into the blender. Add 1 1/2 cups of the milk (splashing some of it into the baking dish first to rinse out any of the syrup that remains), granulated sugar, honey, vanilla, lemon juice and salt, and purée until smooth. Transfer to a bowl. Add the remaining half cup of milk to the blender and run briefly to thin any of the banana mixture that remains. Add this to the rest of the mix in the bowl and whisk until homogenous.

Chill the mixture for at least 8 hour (or overnight) in the refrigerator. Freeze the ice cream in an ice cream machine according to the manufacturer’s instructions. (If the chilled mixture is too thick to pour into your machine, whisk it to thin it out.)

How you add the chocolate flakes will depend on your style of ice cream maker. The basic idea is to drizzle the chocolate into the finished, softly set ice cream a bit at a time and fold it in before drizzling in some more and folding again. The process is repeated until all the chocolate has been added.

The chocolate freezes almost immediately upon coming into contact with the soft ice cream and the folding process breaks the drizzles up into chips. I have a hand-crank, chilled canister-type maker, so to add the chocolate, I remove the paddle from the ice cream and then add the chocolate using the process described above while the ice cream was still in its chilled canister. I then transfer the finished ice cream to a chilled container for the freezer. (If you prefer, you may layer the chocolate into the ice cream as you transfer it into another container. Simply add a thin layer of ice cream, drizzle this layer with chocolate, add another layer of ice cream and drizzle in more chocolate...continue, repeating these two layers until all the ice cream and chocolate have been transferred to the container.) Makes a scant quart of ice cream

(Recipe adapted from The Perfect Scoop by David Lebovitz).

Printable Recipe

Salted Butter Caramel Sauce 

1 cup (200g) granulated sugar
6 T. salted butter (or use unsalted plus 1/4 t. kosher salt), cubed
1/2 c. heavy cream, room temperature
Sea salt or kosher salt (optional)

Spread the sugar in a deep saucepan. Place the pan over medium-high to high heat. Watch carefully—the sugar will immediately turn to caramel as it melts. Shake the pan occasionally to prevent the melted sugar from burning and to expose more dry sugar to the heat.

If the sugar begins to smoke, lower the heat a bit. Eventually there will be a few hard lumps of sugar floating in liquid caramel.

Remove from the heat and stir until all the lumps are dissolved and the caramel is a clear golden amber. Briefly return the pan to the heat to dissolve any stubborn lumps and, if necessary to deepen the color a bit. The final caramel should be a deep amber and should just be beginning to smoke.

Remove the pan from the heat and carefully drop in the cubes of butter (along with 1/4 t. of kosher salt if using unsalted butter).

Stir the butter in with a whisk until it’s completely melted, then gradually whisk in the cream, stirring until the sauce is smooth. If there are stubborn bits of caramel stuck to the bottom, loosen them with a wooden spoon, and stir them in. If they refuse to melt, rewarm the sauce over low heat, which should do the trick.

Once the sauce is cool enough to taste, you may want to add a bit of salt. (I like to add about 1/4 to 3/8 t. kosher salt.) The sauce will keep for up to 2 weeks in the refrigerator and can be reheated before serving. If cooled and rewarmed, it may need to be thinned with a bit of cream or milk. Makes 1 1/3 cups sauce.

(Recipe adapted from My Paris Kitchen: Recipes & Stories, by David Lebovitz)

Printable Recipe

Monday, October 12, 2015

Plain Old Pumpkin Bread

This past week I made my first loaf of pumpkin bread for the season.  In a world of pumpkin-spiced beer...  pumpkin-spiced M&M's...  pumpkin-spiced lattes...  and etc., plain old pumpkin bread is a relief.  It is so ordinary and simple that anyone can make it...and I am convinced that its nostalgic sweetness and spice are the qualities that the pumpkin spice-food makers of the world are trying to emulate. 

From now through the end of the winter months I will almost always have a few slices tucked away in the freezer (for breakfast...or a snack)...along with a loaf or two to give as impromptu gifts.  I have had more than one recipient tell me that it is the best pumpkin bread they have ever had. 

My recipe is not fancy.  In terms of the major ingredients and mixing method, it probably varies only slightly from many recipes you will find.  I have tweaked it so much over the years that at this point I am not sure of its origins.  I do know that as far as the spices are concerned, I have adopted the blend used in the version they make at The Merc in Lawrence, where I teach. 

Pumpkin spice typically includes some permutation of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, allspice and cloves....cinnamon and ginger being the most commonly included.  The loaf from The Merc is heavy handed on the nutmeg...and I love it.   But you should of course feel free to reduce it if it is too strong for you.  Also included in The Merc's loaf are a moderate amount of cinnamon and a relatively large quantity of cloves.  Clove is another spice that I love, and it is almost always added in sparing pinches and other measly measures.  Allspice and ginger have been left out entirely.  The omission of ginger might seem strange to some, but it pleases me since it is my least favorite of the typical pumpkin spices.

I had never intended to post this recipe.  After all, there are few things more common than a recipe for old-fashioned pumpkin probably already have a favorite of your own.  But as I have been enjoying this first loaf of the season, I realized that this is part of what this blog is for me:  a place where I can share with as many people as possible the foods that I love—be they fancy or plain, complicated or simple. If you don't have a recipe for pumpkin bread that you love, I hope you will give this one a try...and I hope that you love it as much as I do. 

Pumpkin Bread

3 3/4 c. all-purpose flour (425g)
2 t. baking soda
1 t. salt
1 t. cinnamon
1 1/2 to 2 t. nutmeg
3/4 t. cloves
1 15 oz. (425g) can solid pack pumpkin (1 3/4 cup)
2 1/2 c. sugar (500g)
1/2 c. water
1 c. vegetable oil (215g)
4 eggs
Turbinado sugar, optional

Combine the first six ingredients and set aside.

Whisk the pumpkin, sugar and water together until smooth.  Add the oil in a steady stream while whisking constantly.  The mixture should emulsify and thicken slightly.  Whisk in the eggs one at a time, adding each successive egg after the previous has been fully incorporated.  Fold in the dry ingredients—mixing just until well combined.

Turn the batter into two greased & floured loaf pans.  If desired, sprinkle the loaves generously with turbinado (or other coarse) sugar.  Bake at 350° (325° if using Pyrex pans) until a skewer comes out clean—about 1 hour to 1 hour and 10 minutes.  Cool in the pans for 10 minutes.  Turn the loaves out onto a rack and cool completely.

Note:  You may use either 6 or 8 cup loaf pans.  A 6 cup pan will give you a tall, peaked loaf.  An 8 cup will produce a low, gently mounded loaf.  The loaf in the pictures was baked in an 8 cup pan.