Sunday, February 26, 2012

Gluten free le pain aux poires

I have come to the sad realization that I do not play nice with gluten. However, as this is a food blog and not a medical text, I’ll spare you the details. Fortunately I’m in good company in this decade, so let’s just get to the pastry, shall we?

One of my favorite foods to enjoy with coffee is le pain aux poires, or loosely translated: pastry with pears. As far as I’m concerned, flour is simply a carrier for the luxurious butter in this pastry. So I began the quest this morning to create a gluten-free version.

Truth be told, I began last night. The pastry requires a bit of forethought in that you whiz all of the ingredients together and allow them to rest overnight. But I rather like it that way. It’s not one herculean task that leaves your kitchen a wreck and your feet aching.

I awoke this morning at seven--as it was my morning to get up with the kids--and by the time Rich woke up, I was pulling le pain aux poires out of the oven. You’re all smarter and more patient than am I, so I trust you’ll allow them to cool before diving in with a fork.

A quick note about gluten-free flour. I use Dove’s Farm, a variety available in UK markets. It is similar to Bob’s Red Mill but has a starchier quality. So if you do use Bob’s GF flour, combine it with about 25 percent arrowroot, for a total of 1 1/4 cups.  

One last note, this recipe is inspired by Nigella’s Danish processor pastry, in How to Be a Domestic Goddess. 

Yields 6 pastries
1 ¼ cups gluten-free flour, plus ¼ cup for dusting
¼ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon active rapid-rise yeast
¼ teaspoon xanthan gum
1 tablespoon granulated white sugar
½ cup cold butter, cut into chunks
¼ cup milk, at room temperature
2 tablespoons hot water
1 egg, at room temperature

2 tablespoons granulated white sugar
½ cup mascarpone cheese
 1 egg plus 1 egg white
3 pears, peeled, halved and cored

In a food processor, whiz together the flour, salt, yeast, and 2 tablespoons sugar. Add the butter and blend  until pebbly. In a separate bowl, combine the milk, hot water, xanthan gum and egg. Add the butter and flour mixture and stir with a wooden spoon or your hands until just combined. It will be very sticky. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

The next morning, turn the dough out onto a liberally floured surface (gluten free, of course). Allow to warm to room temperature for about 20 minutes then sprinkle with more flour and roll to about ½ inch thickness. 

Fold in thirds as you would a business letter. Roll flat again and repeat, dusting with flour as needed. As you no doubt know, this creates flakiness in the finished pastry. Repeat several more times, rolling flat to finish.

Slice in six rectangles and transfer these to a parchment-lined baking sheet. Shape these into oblong discs that resemble the profile of a pear by folding in the sides, as you would a galette. Allow to rise in a warm place until soft and puffy, about half an hour.

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Whisk together the sugar, mascarpone and egg. Place a generous dollop into the center of each pastry and top with a pear half. 

Whisk the egg white with one tablespoon cold water until almost frothy. Use a brush to cover the edges of each pastry with the egg wash. Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until the pastry is golden brown. Allow to cool for at least 10 minutes. Longer is better, but I understand if you’re too excited.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Shattering the Myth of Bland British Food

An antiquated and unfortunate stereotype persists among Americans: British food is bland, boiled and boring. It goes with the teeth, we say. Having spent now four months in the United Kingdom I can unequivocally say this is completely false. I have eaten some of the best meals of my life in England. My favorite was a several-coursed lunch at Launceston Place in Kensington in January. I enjoyed a poached duck egg on toast with truffle aioli to start, served with pickled herring, house-made butter on a stone and fresh crackly, crusty bread. Brilliant.

This past week I attended a conference in Herefordshire, a stones throw from the border of Wales. Yesterday  Rich and I enjoyed a day at the Hay on Wye market where I picked up some Manchego cheese and dates for this evening's dinner.
That evening we dined with our colleagues at The Tram Inn, a charming little restaurant in neighboring Eardisley. I began with chicken liver pate, followed by local pork with mashed potatoes in a blue cheese bechamel. The meal also included an amazing selection of local vegetables, each prepared and seasoned artfully (photo at top). I finished the meal with a cheese platter I split with my friend Aimee who shared her toffee pudding. The Brits call everything pudding. So in truth, it was more of a sticky cake, but delicious nonetheless. 

Not only is restaurant food imaginative and well-executed, the food in average grocery stores rivals that of the finest specialty markets in the United States. Fair-trade. Free-range. Grass-fed. Sustainable. It's all good, and you don't pay a premium for these features.

Even today on the way back to Suffolk we stopped off at a rest stop where I enjoyed the most amazing chicken tikka masala. Yes, at a rest stop.

Nevertheless, the stereotype about the island's cuisine came to exist for good reason; food rationing after World War I brought culinary ingenuity to a halt. NPR wrote a lovely article on the subject in their food blog, theSalt. But it's been decades since food rationing gave way to a renewed interest in international cuisine and reviving local fare, and it's high time we Americans rethought British food.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Rosemary Scented Raspberry Crème Brulee

Crème brulee has to be the easiest difficult dessert to have ever graced my table. As I whisk eggs and milk together, I recall Julie Powell’s sentiments in the movie "Julie & Julia" and take similar comfort knowing that they will become heavenly thick when cooked and come together perfectly even when nothing else in life does.  Such a comfort.

I served this for dessert on Valentines Day, and Rich said it tasted like summer. I’ll be honest, I only used raspberry and rosemary because it is what I had on hand and I love savory herbs in desserts. But wow, what an elegant and delicious combination! Anyone else enjoy herbs in dessert? If so, how do you use them? 

Serves 4
3/4 cup heavy cream
2 sprigs rosemary
3/4 cup crème fraiche
1/3 cup granulated white sugar
6 egg yolks
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 pint raspberries, rinsed and dried
Hot water
1/4 cup granulated white sugar

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (180 C)

In a medium sauce pan, heat the heavy cream and one sprig of rosemary until almost boiling. Turn off the heat, cover and allow the herb to steep in the cream for about 10 minutes. In a separate bowl, whisk together the crème fraiche, sugar, egg yolks and vanilla.

Divide the raspberries between four ramekins and place in a deep baking dish. Pour hot water into the baking dish to cover the bottom two thirds of the ramekins. 

Remove the rosemary from the cream, then in a thin stream, pour the hot cream over the crème fraiche mixture while whisking. Divide this mixture among the ramekins and top each with a few rosemary needles. Bake for 30 minutes.

Remove each ramekin from the water bath to a cooling rack. When cooled to room temperature and ready to serve, sprinkle each custard with one tablespoon of sugar. Caramelize the sugar with either a butane torch or a salamander. I find the latter far less intimidating as flames in the kitchen still ignite fear in my heart.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Leave the Gun; Take the Cannoli

When I was pregnant with my firstborn, I had an insatiable craving for violent movies. I know, crazy, right? I chalk it up to the extra testosterone in my system at the time. Rich was more than happy to oblige as I had subjected him to four years of romantic comedies without so much as a preview for Fight Club or V for Vendetta.

So at the end of my first trimester, when I asked, "Hey, why haven't I seen The Godfather?" he ran there and back from the video store before I could say, "Netflix." 

I wanted to know what all the fuss was about. It seems guys never stop talking about the movie. The offer he couldn't refuse... the horse head in the bed... going to the mattresses... take the gun, leave the cannoli... What? Godfather or no Godfather, you don't leave the cannoli. 

It's art, poetry, romance and everything you want in a dessert. Even a last meal. The savory, crisp shell contrasts perfectly with the sweet, smooth, creamy interior. Although the cooking requires a bit of forethought, making cannoli is quite simple, assembly really. 

1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon cocoa powder
1 1/2 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup white wine

1 recipe fresh ricotta cheese, about 2 1/2 cups
3.5 ounces dark chocolate, roughly chopped
1/4 cup granulated sugar
zest of one orange

1 egg, whisked

2 litres canola oil, for frying

Tools: cling film, deep-fat thermometer, pasta machine (or rolling pin), kitchen tongs, cannoli forms, pastry bag and wide decorating tip (or zip top bag with a hole in the corner) 

To make the pastry, sift together the flour, cocoa powder and sugar, then cut in the butter until the mixture looks like coarse bread crumbs. Stir in the wine until the dough comes together, then knead until mixed well. Wrap in cling film and set aside for 30 minutes to an hour.

While the dough rests, stir the sugar, orange zest and chocolate pieces into the ricotta and fill a pastry bag with the mixture. If you don't have one, you can certainly use a zip top bag with a hole cut in the corner. 

In a five-quart stock pot, heat the canola oil until it registers 350 degrees Fahrenheit (180 Centigrade). Please, please do not skip the thermometer. I can tell you the exact flash point of canola oil because... well, I set my first kitchen on fire nearly a decade ago making tempura. Nothing sounds quite like the whoosh of air and gentle pop of a fire starting, and you don't want to hear that noise in your kitchen, now do you?

While the oil heats up, which takes about five to ten minutes, form the dough into about 10 small balls and dust each with flour. Pat them flat before running them through your pasta maker, rotating as you go, until you reach the desired thinness. I suggest the #4 setting for a thin, crisp shell. Roll each disc around a cannoli form and seal with a dab of the beaten egg.

Place the cannoli into the hot oil with a pair of kitchen tongs. Depending on the width of your pot, you may wish to do only two at a time. Fry for about two minutes until golden brown. Remove gingerly, making sure to pour any excess oil out of the form before placing it on a cooling rack. Use a thin pot holder and the tongs to gently ease the shell from the form shortly after it comes out of the oil. Return the oil to 350 degrees before proceeding with the remaining shells. 

When all of the shells are cooked and cooled and you are within about 10 minutes of serving, fill each shell with the ricotta mixture.

Homemade Ricotta Cheese

Some recipes I undertake simply because I can, not because I can't find a suitable replacement at the market. French bread for example. Most commercial bakery breads will far surpass anything I could create at home. Not so with ricotta cheese. I have yet to find anything as delicious in any market in the United States or Europe.

I feel disproportionately domestic and gourmet for how simple the recipe is. This ricotta is particularly delicious in cannoli, lasagna, ravioli and cannelloni.

yields about 2 1/2-3 cups

Scant 2 quarts whole milk (2 litres)
2 1/2 cups buttermilk (600 millilitres)
Pinch fine sea salt

Supplies: thermometer, cheesecloth (or muslin)

Heat the milk and buttermilk in a heavy stock pot over medium high heat with a thermometer clipped to the side of the pan plunging about two inches below the surface of the liquid.

Meanwhile, line a colander with a few layers of moist cheesecloth.

Stir the milk and buttermilk gently and infrequently as it heats. When the curds and whey begin to separate, at about 150 degrees Fahrenheit (65 Centigrade), stop stirring and allow to cook for another three to five minutes. You'll know when it's done when you place a spoon into the mixture and pull away the top layer of curds to find a yellowish whey beneath. Remove the pan from the heat.

With a slotted spoon, lift the curds gently into the lined colander. Allow to drain into a bowl for about five minutes, then gather the cheesecloth and tie in a loose knot. Tie again onto your kitchen faucet and allow to drain for about 15 minutes, or until the curds no longer drip.

Place the cheese into a bowl and season with sea salt to taste.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Home Date

When you are a foodie like I am, living abroad has its advantages. Even in Britain--which has an unfortunate reputation in the United States for bland, boiled food--five-star restaurants abound. The problem is that in a foreign country you have limited options for sloughing your children off on someone trustworthy. So we had a home date.

It was just as well given that Rich came home with a bottle of Prosecco just as snow began to fall on the island. I ran to the market before the roads became a skating rink and returned with potatoes, salmon and green beans. Not the most inspiring menu, but comforting under the circumstances.

While I was gone, Rich snapped a few photos of Brad playing the snow. Wow! Really stunning photography. By the way, any picture that looks good on this blog comes from him. (The mediocre ones I snapped with a point and shoot camera.) 

I baked the salmon with herbed butter then blanched the green beans and whisked together a beurre blanc. For the potatoes, I followed a method Julia Child recommends in Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I have been eating potatoes for many years--have not we all--and have yet to find a more toothsome preparation. It is simple, elegant and complements innumerable fish and meats.

2 count olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 pound small potatoes, peeled

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a large skillet melt the butter and olive oil until very hot. Place the potatoes in the pan and allow to lightly brown for about one minute. Shake the pan to rotate the spuds, and allow to crust with a golden brown on another side. Continue this process until the potatoes are amber all around, then sprinkle with sea salt, cover and cook for about 10 minutes. Season with freshly ground black pepper and serve.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Couscous and Olive Stuffed Sea Bass

The first time I ate fish whole was when I was nine at my uncle's lakefront house near Seattle. The house was gorgeous with a hot tub, floor-to-ceiling windows and two staircases. Very cool in my nine-year-old mind. What I did not find so appealing was the fish eyes staring back at me as we sat down to dine one evening. This distant memory and perhaps a little fear of failure deterred me from ever cooking a whole fish myself.

Until now.

In the movie Ratatouille, the ghost of brilliant chef Gusteau admonishes young Reme, "You must try things that may not work... only the fearless can be great." With his words ringing in my ears I walked up to the seafood counter last week and ordered two gleaming sea bass.

We invited a friend from the base to join us for a quiet dinner at home, and I set about cooking. Again I looked to Tyler Florence for inspiration. He is one of those chefs/authors who never fails me. I loosely followed his recipe in Tyler's Ultimate for Roasted Striped Bass with Green Olive Couscous and Grapefruit Butter. The flavors were perfect. The fish, well, it was bony. So I would not recommend this when you're serving children. But for everyone else the presentation is lovely and the taste equally brilliant.

Serves 4

4 whole sea bass, gutted and scaled
Pinch sea salt

1/4 cup butter
Juice and zest of one grapefruit

1 cup couscous
1 1/2 cups cold water
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1/4 cup pitted green olives, roughly chopped
1 cup green beans, blanched and chopped in 1/2 inch segments
Sea salt and ground black pepper

1 grapefruit, cut into wedges

To make the couscous, bring the water to a simmer with a pinch of sea salt and the grapefruit zest. Add the couscous, cover and let stand for 15 minutes. Fluff with a fork and add the vinegar, olives and green beans. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

In a small saucepan melt the butter with the grapefruit juice and reduce for about five minutes.

Preheat your oven's broiler to high.

Prepare the fish by sprinkling the interior cavities with sea salt. Stuff with couscous and drizzle with the grapefruit butter.

Broil for five minutes, then turn the oven to bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit and cook for another 10 minutes or until the fish is cooked through. Use a thermometer to avoid agitating the delicate flesh.

Spread the remaining couscous on a serving platter, top with the fish and garnish with grapefruit wedges.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Mussels in White Wine and Butter

Ubiquitous on appetizer menus around the United States, mussels in white wine and butter is a classic and as essential as béchamel (white sauce) or marinara to one’s culinary repertoire. So roll up your sleeves and tuck a napkin under your chin.
2 pounds fresh mussels, scrubbed, debearded and rinsed (toss any that are broken or already open and don’t close when tapped gently)
4 tablespoons butter, divided
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 shallots, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
4 sprigs fresh thyme
3/4 cup dry white wine
¼ cup Italian parsley, roughly chopped
1 lemon, halved
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 pound pasta
Heat water and a generous pinch of sea salt and cook pasta until al dente.
Melt one tablespoon butter and olive oil over medium heat and cook shallots and garlic until soft, about five minutes. Stir in white wine, thyme sprigs and mussels. Give everything a good toss then cover and allow the mussels to steam open.  
Remove cooked mussels to a bowl and cover. Continue simmering the cooking liquid until reduced by about half. Remove from heat and whisk in the remaining three tablespoons of butter one at a time. Season to taste with black pepper.
Place pasta in a serving platter and top with the mussels. Drizzle with the reduced white wine and butter sauce. Shower with the parsley and a squeeze of lemon juice.