Thursday, August 25, 2011

Peach Crostata with Fennel Sugar

The peach harvest is in full swing, and this crostata is something I’ve been making for years now to celebrate that delicious moment late in summer when the fruit’s flavor reaches its height. In fact we love high season peaches so much that I spend much of June and July prowling the farmer’s market with a surly expression, as though it’s the farmers’ fault the fruit isn’t ready yet. The first time you taste this crostata though, I hope you will understand why.

I’m always sort of perplexed as to why the peach and fennel combination isn’t seen more on this side of the Atlantic. It’s one of my most beloved flavors from both Provence and northern Italy, both of which happen to be ranked among the world’s leading peach producers. Jars of peach and fennel seed confiture or marmellata can be found all over the markets there.

The concept here is as simple as it gets: bash open some fennel seed to release the oils, sprinkle over the ripest peaches you can find, pile them onto a pastry circle to make a free-form, rustic tart, and bake until golden. The result is the most aromatic, intensified, peachiest peaches you can imagine. Something about the earthy fennel raises the peaches’ flavor and perfume to sublime heights, and the flaky, warm pastry is wonderful for soaking up the juices. You don’t even need a dollop of cream or a scoop of vanilla ice cream, though I’ve never known them to hurt.

Buy freestone peaches for this whenever you can. They make the job of halving, stoning, and slicing the peaches far easier obviously, but I also find I prefer the juicier texture of freestone peaches for baking and tend to keep my clingstone peaches for jam. And avoid the temptation of using slightly under-ripe fruit here. Baked peaches give as good as they get. In other words, they won’t miraculously ripen, sweeten, or juice-up in the oven.

The pastry here was inspired by a galette dough from an old favorite, Dorie Greenspan’s Baking with Julia. It’s a wonderful, buttery, flaky recipe that works for both sweet and savory tarts. The cornmeal gives it welcome crunch – enough to hold syrupy fillings like this one.

Serves 6 – 8

3 tbsp plain yogurt
1/3 cup (approximately) ice water
I cup all-purpose flour
¼ cup cornmeal
1 tsp granulated sugar
½ tsp salt
7 tbsp cold unsalted butter, diced

1 tbsp fennel seed
2 tbsp granulated sugar
6 - 7 large, ripe peaches (roughly 2lbs of fruit), halved, stoned, and sliced into wedges (about 10 wedges per large peach)
1 egg

Make the crostata dough:

Mix the yogurt and water together in a small bowl and set aside. Whisk together the flour, cornmeal, sugar and salt in a large bowl. Add the diced butter, and working just with the tips of your fingers, rub into the dry ingredients until the mixture is speckled with pieces of butter that vary in size from breadcrumbs to peas. (You can pulse it in a food processor if you prefer).

Use a fork to whisk in the yogurt and ice water mixture, a couple of tablespoons at a time, just until soft curds form. You want to avoid making the dough too wet or it’ll be difficult to handle later. Place the dough on some plastic wrap and press it down to form a disk. Wrap and chill at least two hours or overnight. The dough can be frozen at this point for up to one month if wrapped airtight. It will take about 20 minutes to thaw.

Assemble and bake the crostata:

Preheat the oven to 400 F. Line a baking sheet (with sides, not a flat cookie sheet) with baking parchment.

Use a mortar and pestle to bash up the fennel seeds, stir in the sugar, and set aside.

Roll the pastry dough out over a well-floured surface to a 12-inch circle, roll up around your rolling pin and transfer to the parchment-lined baking sheet. In a medium bowl, gently toss the sliced peaches with half of the fennel sugar. Heap them in the center of the pastry circle (see the photo above) and fold the sides of the dough up over the filling, working around the circle, so that each fold overlaps the last (see the photo below). If your dough is too sticky, use a floured bench scraper or the floured side of a chef’s knife to help you fold over the edges.

In a small bowl, whisk together the egg with a splash of water. Use a pastry brush to brush the top of the pastry with the egg mixture and then sprinkle over the rest of the fennel sugar.

Bake in the center of the oven until the pastry is golden and crisp – start checking at 50 minutes. Transfer the baking sheet to a cooling rack and allow to cool for 10 minutes. Use a wide spatula to help you lift the crostata off of the rack and onto the cooling rack. Serve warm or at room temperature – you’ll want to slice it with a large, sharp knife.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Homemade Raspberry Jam & a Trifle for Purists

Even though trifle is usually the stuff of cooler months, I've been in a bit of a jam-making frenzy these past few weeks. I think I'm ready to pack up summer, hunker down a bit, put on a sweater and watch the days grow short. As I recently told someone, I'm ready to make the switch from Kirs to Communists. Plus I've been spending quite a bit of time this summer with some childhood friends from Scotland. There's nothing like old friends, or jam season for that matter, to bring on a wave of nostalgia. Here then is a piece I wrote on trifle, complete with plenty of my mother's raspberry jam, as part of a feature on British food for my friends Kelly and Katie over at PixiesDidIt!:

Though it’s essentially a dessert constructed of layers of various creams and confections, the subtleties of trifle have changed dramatically over the years and differ wildly from chef to chef, and house to house, even now. While many of the variations out there today are delectable, the truth is that trifle has suffered much over time. It started life quite humbly in the 18th century as sponge dipped into custard, covered with jam, and topped with various sweetmeats. But trifle enjoyed its real heyday in the mid 19th century, by which point it had evolved into a dessert constructed out of layers of sponge or macaroons, soaked in sherry or white wine, covered with custard and then citrus-flecked syllabub, and topped with whipped cream. So far, so good.

It wasn’t until the 50s and 60s that things began to unravel. Suddenly instant custard, texturally troubling layers of Jell-o, insipid, weeping canned pears, peaches, and apricots, and shamelessly camp garnishes like multi-colored sprinkles, maraschino cherries, and silver dragées entered the mix. As Nigel Slater noted in Eating for England, “Once gracing our tables like a favourite and slightly tiddly old aunt, our cherished party dessert now resembled nothing more than an old tart in a leopardskin coat.”

In other words, embrace your inner purist. In my family’s case the dish has always meant a simple construction — one layer per ingredient. First comes freshly baked sponge cake, bright with lemon and sandwiched with homemade, barely-set raspberry jam. The cake with its jam is cut into narrow wedges, which are arranged in the bottom of a deep trifle dish. Orange liqueur or sherry is sprinkled over the cake, and then a layer of fresh raspberries is added. Fresh custard, fragrant with vanilla, is poured over the top and left to set before being topped by whipped cream. The result is so indulgent, so pillowy, that it feels vaguely unchaste. We have trifle at Christmas, we have it for Easter, we even have it on Thanksgiving, though I’m sure that’s quite sacrilegious of us. But really, trifle — proper, honestly constructed trifle — is too sublime a treat to waste your time pondering any moral implications.

Getting a good custard together for trifle can be tricky. You want it to be thin enough to soak down into the sponge cake, but then it needs to set well enough that the trifle has at least a little structural integrity. I’ll admit I add a little cornstarch here. Consider it a safety net of sorts. You can make this custard a couple of days ahead of time in a pinch, and store it in the fridge with a layer of saran wrap covering the surface, but I far prefer to pour the custard over the berries and cake while it’s hot. It amalgamates with the cake so much better, and I love how it releases the juices from the raspberries and stains the sponge a deep, crimson red.

And feel free to improvise. With the jam, the liqueur, the berries, the flavor of the cake or the custard. Just no jello or silver balls, please.

My mother and grandmother's raspberry jam:

Up to 2lbs of raspberries - no more
Equal weight granulated sugar

Preheat oven to 250 F (130 C, gas mark 1/2)

Put clean jars into the oven for 10 minutes to sterilize. Put the raspberries in a medium pot over low heat until they start to give up their juice. Add the sugar and stir continuously until it dissolves.

Turn up the heat and boil for 2 - 3 minutes until the bubbles get a little smaller - almost foamy (or the surface goes "skittery" as Granny used to say). Place a drop of jam on a plate and put it in the freezer for 30 - 60 seconds. Push the blob of jam with your finger. Keep checking every minute or so. As soon as the surface wrinkles when pushed, the jam is ready. This is a very runny jam, which is how we like it.

Pour the jam into jars. Let it cool with the lids on to form a seal, tighten the rims, and store in a cool, dark place.

My mother and grandmother's trifle:

Serves 8

4 oz unsalted butter, plus extra for baking
4 oz granulated sugar
2 eggs
juice of 1 lemon
pinch of salt
4 oz all purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
¾ cup raspberry jam (see recipe above if you prefer to make your own)
¼ cup Grand Marnier or orange liqueur
4 - 5 cups (about 16 - 20 oz.) raspberries (quantity depends on the width of your trifle bowl)
10 egg yolks
¾ cup granulated sugar
3 tbsp cornstarch
pinch of kosher salt
4 cups whole milk
1 vanilla bean
1 pint heavy cream

For the sponge cake:

Preheat the oven to 350 F (180 C, gas mark 4)

Butter an 8 inch cake pan. Cream together the butter and the sugar with an electric mixer until slightly lightened in color. Add the eggs one at a time, mixing well until combined. Add the lemon juice and salt and mix again. Add the flour and the baking powder and gently stir until just combined. Do not over mix. Spread the batter into the pan and bake in the center of the oven for 25 – 30 minutes until a wooden toothpick comes out clean. Cool on a rack for 15 minutes before turning the cake out of its pan.

Use a long, serrated knife to cut the cake in half across its equator. Spread the jam over one half and then sandwich the cake back together. Slice the cake into 1 inch wide strips. Then slice the cake in half the other way, to divide the strips in half lengthwise.

Line the bottom of the trifle bowl with these strips and then drizzle over the Grand Marnier. Next tumble over the raspberries and arrange in an even layer.

For the vanilla custard:

In a large bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and ½ cup of the sugar and set aside.

In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, whisk together the remaining ¼ cup of sugar, the cornstarch, and the salt. Whisk in ¼ cup of the milk until smooth. Split the vanilla bean lengthwise with a sharp knife and scrape out the seeds. Add the seeds and the vanilla pod to the saucepan and whisk in the rest of the milk. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring quite often to prevent the mixture from scalding.

Whisking the whole time, slowly drizzle some of the hot milk mixture into the egg yolks, gradually add a little more at a time until it’s completely incorporated. Transfer immediately back to the pot and cook, stirring constantly now, and being careful not to let the mixture boil, for 3 – 4 minutes until quite thick. You can take its temperature if you’re feeling precise – you’re looking for 170 F (76 C).

Immediately pour the custard through a sieve into a clean bowl. You may reserve it at this point, or do as I like to and pour it straight over the raspberries. Allow to cool completely, undisturbed.

To serve:

Just before serving, whip the cream. You want it to barely hold a soft, lazy peak. Top the custard with the cream and serve immediately.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Tuscan Kale Chips with Lemon & Sea Salt

Kale is a primitive form of cabbage and seems to be native to the eastern Mediterranean. Varieties similar to the Lacinato shown were prized for their delicate flavor by both the Ancient Greeks and Romans, who brought them west to France and Britain.

The field-grown baby Lacinato or Tuscan kale is a treat right now. Young, sweet, and hardly a woody stem in sight. It's at its best both in mid-summer and in the early winter, when the frost has had a chance to up the sugar content in more mature and strongly flavored plants.

While the kale is still so small and tender though, I toss it with fruity olive oil and bake it whole just until crisp, giving it a quick shower of lemon juice and sea salt as it comes out of the oven. The long, slender leaves are far more elegant than normal kale chips, but every bit as addictive - particularly with an apéritif at that time, very early in the evening, when something revitalizing with salt and crunch and twang is called for.

Young Lacinato or Tuscan kale leaves, any thick stems and veins trimmed (or any other kale leaves, trimmed of stems and veins and torn into manageable pieces)
olive oil
fresh lemon juice
finely ground sea salt or kosher salt

Preheat the oven to 300 F (150 C, gas mark 2)

Rinse and pat dry the kale leaves, making sure that any thicker stems or veins have been trimmed. In a large bowl, toss the leaves with a drizzle of olive oil until evenly coated. Line baking sheets with parchment paper and, working in batches, arrange the leaves in a single layer, being sure not to have any overlap. Bake until dry and crisp - start checking at 20 minutes. Shower with lemon juice and sprinkle with salt before cooling slightly. Arrange standing upright in glasses as shown if desired and serve immediately.

Monday, August 1, 2011

The August Harvest Calendar

I go to the market early now, before the white glare and scalding heat of high summer take hold for the day.

The rhubarb is long gone, and strawberries are thin on the ground, but the familiar players of late summer are starting to stack up.

Young eggplants, without any of their autumnal bitterness yet. Truly good tomatoes.

And peppers.

Tangles of sweet-smelling string beans.

And bunches of garlic, cured for the winter already.

There are fragrant mountains of lettuce, perfect for cutting through the heat in refreshingly cold little bowls of green gazpacho, laced with sherry vinegar.

The lemony twang of purslane cools and calms too.

And there are still peas, though they'll disappear soon before their second harvest in the early autumn.

Even the flowers are looking a little sultry these days. Pillowy beds of hydrangeas.

Lazy jumbles of sunflowers.

And carpets of chamomile. The scent alone leaves me ready for sleep.

But who am I kidding? August is about the fruit.


And riotous.

The cherries are all but done now too, and there will be no more raspberries until the second harvest in September and October. New crops this month also include cauliflower, celery, leeks, winter squash, turnips, blackberries, cantaloupes, and prunes.

Crop notes are available in the sidebar harvest calendar over there on the right all month. The information comes from a guide published by the CENYC, which runs the Greenmarket & New Farmer Development Project. To familiarize yourself with what's in season where you live, I advise a visit to your own farmer's markets at least every couple of weeks. And ask lots of questions – no one knows which crops are at their peak quite like the people who grow them. To locate markets near you in the US, check the Zip or City Quick Search at Local Harvest.

Happy summer and happy August!

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