To Happier Anniversaries and Recommitting to Goals

This month Salt Sweet Bitter turned a year old. Happy birthday, little blog!

When Margaret first suggested the idea of a shared blog to me, I was not at all certain I was the right person to trust with such a venture–I have always had a bad track record for beginning things with great enthusiasm and abandoning them when I run out of steam weeks or months later, and at the time I was still struggling with grief and severe anxiety. I really liked the idea, though, so I said yes.

I have been glad I did so every week. I have not always been able to finish my posts on the deadlines I have set myself, but I have kept to them more often than not. My baking projects were a large part of what pulled me out of the depression I had been struggling with since before my mother’s death, and learning to write coherently about politics has been a buffer against some of the despair that set in after the election. Having a place to report about these things, however informal and forgiving, has proven to be vital.

Last week I got to spend time in Boston with Margaret for the first time in far too many years, and it was glorious. She graciously guided and drove me to various locales so that I could indulge my obsessions with history and chocolate and bookshops. We also did lots of talking and lots of eating popcorn while watching films and television, and lots of cooking. And more eating. If you have not been to Boston, the food is flipping incredible, whether it comes from Margaret’s kitchen or any of the innumerable awesome restaurants. (I expected I would lose a few ounces due to all the walking that I am not used to. This did not happen, because Burdick’s and lobster rolls.)

I do not think I am a bad cook, and I will certainly stand up and say I am a good baker of most things that are not bread–at least, not yet–but my range is limited. I can do a few excellent cakes, good roast potatoes, and I can manage baked salmon and fried pork chops without drying them out. I haven’t practiced enough to call it a talent yet, but I’ve had remarkably good luck with joints of roast beef thus far, even the cheaper cuts that are likely to turn out tough. Margaret’s abilities, however, remind me that if I’m not exactly a beginner, neither am I far into the intermediate level, and as much as I enjoy making salmon en croute and noodles and shrimp with lime-sesame dressing, there are only so many times one can serve these things to guests before everyone gets bored.

One recent success: Christmas morning cinnamon rolls using an ATK recipe, which were in all honesty the best I’ve ever had, if I do say so myself. Including Cinnabon.

Without quite noticing, I’ve found over the past couple of months that I’ve achieved a lot, if not all, of what I kept telling myself I had to do after my mother died. The house is mostly tidy, a great deal of the clutter has been either parted with or better organized, and cleaning takes a fraction of the time it used to, even if I still hate doing the ironing and the carpets need vacuuming on almost a daily basis (because cats…). The silver kittens are almost full-size cats and very affectionate, if still shy. I have done some reorganizing of the house, and have a clearer idea of what else I want to do. So far this year has been devoted to politics, writing, and reading. I have no intention of giving up any of those, but I have worked through enough grief and despair to start focusing on some of the other things I love again, especially cooking. I have a growing collection of cookbooks that I am quite proud of; it is time to start using them more frequently, trying out dishes I am entirely unfamiliar with and finding new ways to cook foods I know I like. I have a collection of herbs in the garden that have been entirely neglected while I focused on the inside of the house, so they desperately need some care and attention. I am also determined to become a very good baker, particularly of bread, including sourdough. It should be interesting, if nothing else; in between the political writing and gushing about chocolate and pop culture, I promise to get back to documenting more of what I’m working on. I would love to hear more from our readers–if you have any suggestions or requests regarding recipes, please do let me know.

 

Easy holiday rack of lamb

Looking for something fancy to serve over the holidays? Not looking forward to spending all day on a roast? If you have a smaller party, a frenched rack of lamb looks about as impressive as it gets and is super easy to prepare. (I was also preparing multiple other things at the same time and was a total slacker about photos…sorry.)

For my Viking’s birthday this past week, I wanted to cleanse both our palates of a truly awful lamb experience at one of Boston’s nicest restaurants. This worked. Because I don’t cook lamb much, I did a weird thing for me, which was: I found a recipe and followed it exactly. (Okay. Almost exactly.)

I used Rack of Lamb with Garlic and Herbs. Originally a summer recipe from Gourmet, there’s nothing summer-specific about this. The herb coating is indeed a welcome kick of brightness in a dreary month, but the savory, meltingly tender meat is as celebratory as it gets.

Also, lamb is in season in the other hemisphere, so it’s even (sort of?) seasonal. I always prefer Australian or New Zealand lamb when I can get it: free range and grass-fed by default, it is generally more mild-flavored than American lamb (so if you don’t like “gamey” lamb this is a good bet for you), plus humanely raised.

  1. Preheat your oven (recipe says 350; I, and many of the recipe’s reviewers, used 400 instead).
  2. While it’s heating, make the herb paste.
    1. I did a double handful of curly parsley (flat tastes weird to me), four fat garlic cloves, four or five stems of fresh rosemary, about a teaspoon dried thyme, a pinch of salt, and loads of fresh pepper. I bet this would also be delightful with some fresh mint thrown in.
    2. With a good dollop of olive oil, this came together in no time in the work bowl of my food processor, but it’s not a lot to mince by hand–just be careful to get it as paste-y as possible for best cohesion to the lamb later on.
    3. Please not that my paste quantities are almost exactly the same as the recipe’s–but the recipe is supposed to coat two racks, and I only had one. To this I say, HA! More paste!
  3. Trim fat from lamb if necessary–mine was nicely butchered and there was no need–and rinse, then pat well dry.
  4. Sprinkle liberally with kosher salt and fresh ground pepper.
  5. Preheat a heavy skillet for a couple of minutes, dry, til very hot, THEN add a bit of high-heat oil to the pan. I used a 10 inch cast iron with avocado oil.
  6. Brown the lamb well, everywhere but the short exposed ends (which you don’t want to overcook). I did about 2 minutes per side. Non-cast iron may take longer.
  7. Now the fun part. Take the paste and rub it liberally all over the meaty parts of the rack. Pressing firmly should get it to adhere pretty well. You want it to really coat the meat.
  8. The recipe says to put the rack(s) in a small roasting pan to finish cooking, but I say, if I already have a dirty pan AND it’s oven-safe, why would I bother? So I gave my skillet a quick swipe with a paper towel to remove excess fat, put the lamb right back in, and stuck it in the oven.
  9. Cook until the lamb registers about 120; as it rests, it should come up to medium-rare.
    1. This may 15-25 minutes depending on your oven (and on your lamb, I suppose).
    2. I tested at 15 and it was 102; I tested 7 minutes later and it was 129 (!!!!!) but it turned out PERFECTLY medium-rare, as you can see. I did tent with foil at the 15-minute mark, as the recipe suggests, and that may actually have been the problem. The lamb wasn’t scorching–next time I would leave uncovered.
    3. Pro tip: I got annoyed that the recipe made no mention of how to position the rack for optimal cooking. I decided it would be weird if one of the meaty sides were laying flat while the other were exposed to the air. That seemed like it would cook unevenly, plus perhaps burn that nice herb paste. So I rolled up a bit of tinfoil and used it as a prop to keep the rack from falling over as it “stood” upright.
  10. Let rest for a few minutes–ideally tented with foil, but because mine came out at too high a temp, I immediately removed it to a plate and left uncovered to help it cool quicker. Then carve into two-chop segments and enjoy.

I served ours with a wild mushroom farro risotto and a simple side of greens (arugula and sorrel, dressed lightly with toasted walnut oil and lemon). It left me thinking I ought to make more excuses to serve rack of lamb: fast, drop-dead gorgeous, and utterly delicious.

herb crusted rack of lamb

And now, pie

I have yet to emerge from my post-election hideout from the real world, but I think the worst of the comfort food phase is over. Or should I say best? There were a lot of indulgences in there, among them: pie. Lots and lots of pie.

Yet I don’t have much of a sweet tooth. (My tooth is very, very salty.) One of the reasons pie has always appealed to me is that you can moderate the sweetness and offset it–a fresh fruit filling, a buttery crust that verges on savory, a hint of almond in the cherries or whisky in the apples. But I also really love coconut cream pie so go figure.

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The two rules of pie crust: mess with it as little as possible, and keep it as cold as possible. I happen to like mine made with all butter and no sugar, like this one from the NYT, but there are plenty out there that use shortening or sugar or egg (for a tart crust) and really, those are just lovely too. Make it all by hand or do 90% of it in a food processor. Roll it out between sheets of parchment, plastic wrap, or silpats for a process that’s nearly as mess-free as buying one from a store. The flavor and texture rewards are so worth it.

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My favorite from this most recent craze was a batch of sour cherry hand pies. The cherries were from my aunt’s tree–from last year, in which it had produced a prodigal crop of the pale ruby gems–and had been frozen after processing. I thawed a quart of them, drained them, cooked them down with barely a cup of sugar and a cornstarch slurry made with lemon juice, and then let them cool. I stirred in a little almond extract just because.

Baked in individually-sized portions for the maximum crust-to-content ratio, they came out like every cherry pie I’ve ever wanted. Tart then sweet, ending with a fat roundness from that buttery, buttery crust, their only flaw was insufficient quantity. Okay, and some of them were falling apart because I am terrible at shaping hand pies (all the good ones were made by a lovely friend/kitchen goddess helping me). But still. Perfect.

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Oktoberfestzels

Oktoberfest may be loads of fun in Munich, but in the States it’s usually a bust. Giant crowds of drunk people, expensive beer, sad lederhosen. So when close friends began hosting their own, I thought I couldn’t be more thrilled. But then they made pretzels. REAL pretzels.

Oktoberfest pretzel textureIf ever you have loved a street pretzel, I am sure it’s because of the peculiar snap when you bite into it. The contrast of savory crust against chewy, yeasty dough is pretty good too. If ever you have been disappointed by a street pretzel–all of us?–it’s because the skin is dull or soft, and the interior a bready flavorless mass.

So what’s the secret? Other than requiring a good basic yeasted dough recipe, what sets apart a real pretzel from the impostors is a dip in a food-grade lye solution. Home cooks don’t usually mess with lye, which is highly caustic and needs to be handled carefully, but it’s the critical component in both pretzels and bagels.

The high-alkaline lye breaks down proteins in the surface of the dough. These freed-up amino acids interact with sugars when exposed to heat, creating complex flavor compounds along with darkening color. This process happens on some level with all cooked food–it’s called the Maillard reaction and is responsible for much deliciousness, like the crust of creme brulee–but the lye amplifies it. Often, home cooks try substituting baking soda to skip messing with lye; this works, but doesn’t get you quite the richness, complexity, or deep brown color possible with lye. Baking soda’s pH is 7. Pure lye’s is double that at 14.

Red Devil Lye for pretzelsFortunately, our host and my intrepid spouse are best friends and perfectly willing to support each other through the drama that is the lye dip. While they are, to date, the only ones who dip their gloved hands into the chemical that constitutes drain cleaner, the rest of us do what we can: mixing dough, shaping loaves, setting timers, rolling and shaping the pretzels. And then more friends arrive and somehow, dozens and dozens of pretzels just disappear. It’s an Oktoberfest miracle.

The dough is simply yeast, flour, water, salt, and a sugar; malt syrup is traditional, we used molasses as it’s easier to find. You mix it well, and like a bread dough knead it until it’s stretchy and smooth (signs the proteins are starting to break down and re-form into nice long chains that will hold their shape as the dough rises). Then it rests. Afterwards, punching down and a few gentle kneads, then portioning it, rolling long ropes of dough, and forming pretzels. After they adjust to their new form, they get dipped in the lye bath and immediately baked in a hot oven.

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Our pretzels for Oktoberfest 2016 were made according to a NYT recipe that we hadn’t used in past years. Calling for quite a lot of instant yeast per batch (2 T per 6 c flour!), they were much more active than our previous doughs. In order to stagger our time and be able to actually party and stuff, we made the dough the night before and let it rest overnight. With some doughs this would have been fine. With this one, even their 40-F degree resting environment was not cool enough to retard their growth sufficiently. So these were a mite less “pretzely” looking than previous years on account of their puffiness, but the taste was fabulous. All that yeast (and rising time) gave them really deep flavor.

This year, we made 84 pretzels for ~30 guests. We had 5 leftover because clearly a couple of people weren’t pulling their weight. I think I had 8 but it might have been 9 because once we started toasting them by the firepit while drinking whiskey I sort of stopped counting.

Photo from Oktoberfest 2015, I was too stuffed with pretzels for fire-pretzel photos this year.
Photo from Oktoberfest 2015, I was too stuffed with pretzels for fire-pretzel photos this year.

 

Apples: A Seasonal Love Affair

I wonder if I would love apples as much if I had grown up somewhere other than New England. For instance, if my family had remained in eastern Kentucky where I was born—more tomato than apple country. But I grew up just outside of Boston and they were a staple of my diet. I used to eat literally everything but the seeds, core and all—at least for those fleeting early fall months when the apple exhibits its most, best, intense, appleness.

Our food system allows us to access most foods at most times of the year: strawberries in February, oranges in May, spring lamb all year round. All natural foods are best when freshest, and out of season produce can be truly dismal by the time it travels from its native clime to your table. But no other food makes the importance of seasonality so brazenly clear to me as apples.

29566098944_1fc0a6289d_oI’ve rarely met the tree-ripe, just-picked apple I didn’t love. The satisfying bite, the rush of juice, the almost cleansing acidity. If you live in an apple mecca—Boston counts—then during the season you can choose from dozens of varietals to exactly match your preference. I prefer apples with a very crisp bite, firm fine-grained flesh, and a flavor profile that’s at least as tart as it is sweet. Northern Spy, Macoun, Jonamac, Empire, Cortland are reliable picks.

This year I found a new heirloom apple favorite, the fantastically named Ashmead’s Kernal. Similar in appearance to the oldest cultivated apple, the tamer Roxbury Russet, it has a mottled matte green skin (almost like an Asian pear), bright white dense flesh with a fabulous snap, and an intoxicatingly lively palate. It can be intensely tart. If I ever have a batch long enough that their bite softens, making them less ideal for eating out of hand, I would try them in a tarte tatin where that tartness could play against a sweet rich buttery pastry.

heirloom apple tastingAt dinner the other night, friends prepared an heirloom apple tasting as our first course. It was a brilliant idea. I laughed at the coincidence when I saw the plate—we shop at the same farmer’s market and they had picked out exactly the same varietals as I had done, from a wide array of choices, that morning.

They served the apples with a Pecorino-like local cheese, nuts and seeds they had roasted with a spiced glaze, and homemade rye crackers. The accompaniments provided a nice range of contrasts—earthy, spicy, crunchy, unctuous, sweet—against which we could judge the apples’ qualities. Ashmead’s Kernal turned out to be the overall favorite.

Esopus Spitzenberg—really—had an almost airy bite and citrus-scented, light flesh. A reputed favorite of Thomas Jefferson, it tied for second with the incongruously named Blue Pearmain, which I can only describe as a fairy tale apple: cherry-red skin, snow-white flesh. It was not my favorite because its bite was more firm than crisp and its acidity was not quite pronounced enough to offset its distinctly floral sweetness. We all agreed it would make a killer cider or applesauce; its scent was positively heady. In last place was the aforementioned Roxbury Russet. Though this cultivar plays an important role in American apple history and is local to Boston to boot, its overall flavor profile was muted in comparison to the others and its bite, as well as its skin, more closely resembled an Asian pear than its peers.

20151010-dsc_0577It’s about 10 in the morning right now and I’ve already had my first apple of the day (I think it was a Black Gilliflower, crisp sweet firm). An Ashmead’s Kernal is next, and then tomorrow morning, back to the farmer’s market for another round of treasure hunting.

Friday Fave: Cheese Chasers

Cheese has always been a serious matter in my household. My father is in general one of those people unwilling to spend more than absolutely necessary on what he needs; if I’m buying a packet of cocoa powder, or a cut of meat, or a new phone, he has always found it necessary to query why I’m buying this or that particular brand or style, and inform me (usually more than once) that I would have spent less if I’d bought said thing somewhere else, or a different brand’s version. There are, however, a few things he does not compromise on: marmalade, bread, and cheese. Never once has he argued with me over the price of a loaf of bread, and anything labeled as “cheese food” or “spray cheese” is not allowed in the house. We bought Velveeta once to make nachos, but it was pronounced a failure. I do remember a brief period from my childhood when we had Kraft slices at home, possibly because I had begged for them–I have absolutely no memories of taking them to school for lunch, but I think we used them for cheese toast–but when Cabot cheese appeared in our local supermarket, that was the end of individually wrapped, plasticky cheese. I also remember my mother describing how someone had told her that she cooked macaroni and cheese for dinner at least once a week, because it was so tasty and saved her money, and wondering how it could possibly save her money when a block of cheese for the dish cost so much; I’m not sure my mother had ever realized, at least at that point, that a box of macaroni and cheese mix included powdered stuff that resembled cheese sauce when prepared.

As long as there has been high-quality cheese available in our local supermarkets, preferably imported from the UK or France or Italy, there has always been a block of cheddar in our refrigerator. It is often accompanied by a piece of brie or camembert, and more recently, Danish blue. I’d make a great many more trips to the Whole Foods cheese counter if my income allowed. (When I lived in Edinburgh there was J. Mellis Cheesmongers, one of the nicest cheese shops ever. Mellis has six locations in Scotland; I’ve lived within a five-minute walk of three of them, at various times. Of the many, many things I miss about Scotland, this is one of them. If Atlanta has anything comparable, I haven’t found it yet.) Costco has been, if not a life-saver, at least a great boon in this regard.

Image result for cheese slices tv show

One of the perks of frequently housesitting for friends is getting to watch the cable stations that my own provider doesn’t carry. A few years ago I was channel surfing and came across a show called Cheese Slices, or Cheese Chasers. (It seems to have different names depending on where it’s aired.) It’s a half hour program devoted entirely to cheese, and honestly, given how much people love cheese (it’s as addictive as a drug, apparently, did you know?) I don’t know why no one thought of this years ago. Each episode is devoted to a different region of the world known for producing a specific variety of cheese, and the host, Will Studd, goes to different commercial and home-grown businesses that produce the cheese. They discuss each variety’s history, the milk it’s made from–often accompanied by shots of the herds kept to produce said milk–the legal restrictions it’s subject to, and usually a meal or two that features the cheese. I find it fascinating, and endlessly irritating that it’s only available in broken-up segments on YouTube–I’d happily buy the series on dvd if it was available; episodes are available for purchase on his website, but I don’t know what the cost is per show. I suspect it’s more than I’m willing to pay, at least for now. There are clips available on YouTube, if you hunt for them–look for Will Studd, because if you just do a search for “Cheese Chasers” you get a lot of clips of a classic cartoon episode by the same name. If you happen to have a cable service provided that carries the otherwise ridiculous Wealth TV (now labeling itself A Wealth of Entertainment), keep an eye out for it.

Studd himself is an evangelist for unpasteurized milk and dairy products, which I don’t entirely agree with. I do think it’s silly to prohibit the sale of unpasteurized cheeses, because they do have a flavor that can’t be achieved with pasteurized milk, and can be delicious; I don’t know of anywhere that prohibits the making and consumption of sushi, as long as any such sale is accompanied by the obligatory warning about the possibility of becoming sick from eating uncooked fish. On the other hand, the law on the sale of unpasteurized milk exists for a good reason, as grotesquely and effectively illustrated in an early episode of Boardwalk Empire. People can easily see the difference between uncooked and cooked fish, chicken, and meat; pasteurized and unpasteurized milk, and the cheese made therefrom, isn’t similarly distinguishable at a glance.

But back to the cheese. Each episode finishes off with a meal–many of them are simple picnics, pairing the cheeses with local meats and wines, and some require specific pans that I don’t have access to, or techniques I haven’t mastered (I *will* make a proper frittata one day. I will), but there was one recipe that I am going to try just as soon as I find the right sort of cheese. I wish I could link to the original clip, or give credit to the family who seems to have thought of this (unless it’s a traditional local dish that I just haven’t been able to guess the name of, I did try searching by ingredients), and the next time I get a chance to see the episode I will (it’s in episode 6 of season 1, I think), but until then, try this, it looks delicious.

You will need a bowl at least 3 inches or so deep and a saucepan large enough to fit the bowl easily inside. A steamer insert would also be handy, but isn’t necessary. Fill the saucepan an inch deep with water and bring the boil. While the water is heating, crumble or shred a few slices of Lancashire cheese and sprinkle them in a ring around the edge of the bowl. Crack an egg into the center of the cheese ring. (Amounts of cheese and egg can be increased according to how many people are sharing the dish.) Cut a fresh Roma or other small tomato or two into thin slices and arrange them over the cheese in a ring. Set the bowl carefully into the pan of boiling water–use an oven glove or a dishtowel to avoid burning yourself. (This is where the steamer basket is a handy thing, if you have one.) Cover the saucepan with its lid and allow to steam for five minutes–more time may be necessary if you’ve got more than one egg. Remove the bowl carefully from the pan, again being careful not to burn yourself. Serve with a loaf of crusty bread, toasted or fresh. Spoon the melted cheese and poached egg onto the bread as you eat. Comfort food at its finest, and great for a cool autumn or winter morning.

Rotisserie Chicken: The Best and Worst of America

Things are awful, people are awful, the world is a terrible place and I want to cry: these are my general reactions to my daily doses of the news. The United States, like a complicated new baking recipe, is a fabulous idea but in the early stages of its development, a hot mess. Which brings me to rotisserie chicken.

Look. I know the food systems in our country are a tangled web of special interests, subsidies gone wrong, the degradation of most of our arable land, and animal cruelty on an unspeakable scale. I don’t eat a ton of meat and I try to find sustainably (or at least humanely) raised meat when I do buy it.

Yet there are days–long hours of hard work at the barn, or hours spent trying to write with nothing to show–when I realize I should probably feed myself, and that my husband would appreciate me including him in the effort so I shouldn’t just eat popcorn, and it’s really irresponsible and expensive to order out, and I’m exhausted, and I want something that tastes like Real Food but I absolutely do not want to cook it, that I remember rotisserie chickens exist.

What a soothing product. What a shining beacon of American-ness. Sometimes they just make everything right with the world: they are available everywhere, they are consistently good and sometimes delicious, and they are appallingly cheap (often 30, and as much as 50, percent less than the cost of a similarly sized raw chicken where both are sold).

America! How did we invent this miraculous product? Of course, the food item itself is probably one of the oldest known to humanity, but why and how has this become a ubiquitous quick dinner solution across our nation?

(I should note that the quintessentially American rotisserie chicken does, as do most of the best food traditions in the western world, owe a debt to France. Apparently, the notoriously food-fickle Napoleon was kind of an addict. For instance: “When he rode out of Cairo on Christmas Eve to survey the Suez isthmus, the only provisions he took were three roasted chickens wrapped in paper.”)

But I digress. ‘Murica! The Washington Post wrote a piece a couple years back claiming that our national trend began with with the expansion of the Boston Market food chain in the 1980s. A grocery store economics site says the store chickens are so cheap because many markets are just getting rid of food that wouldn’t otherwise sell (i.e., reaching sell-by dates). Some stores do have dedicated rotisserie chicken programs in order to churn out as many as possible. I assume stores discovered that folks would come in for that one low- or no-margin product and leave with many other more profitable ones. I know that’s what happens to me whenever I cave and stop in at Costco or Whole Foods on the way home.

Photograph by David Paul Morris/Bloomberg
Photograph by David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

The 1980s timeline makes sense to me. The ’80s were when women–overwhelmingly the ones doing the food shopping and cooking–entered the work force full time in droves. There was suddenly demand for fast food that tasted like you might imagine home-cooked food would taste if you’d never had it. Plus, that’s when a lot of chains were making the jump from regional to national.

So this is a foodstuff that grew in popularity as America became steadily more connected coast to coast and as our food systems deepened into the painfully contorted knots first tied by ag policies dating to the Great Depression. Rotisserie chickens simultaneously reflect one of the great goods of America (affordable abundance) and one of the great evils (refusal to address the true environmental and health costs of underpriced goods).

After the initial still-hot dinner meal, I have my leftover guilty pleasure chicken on top of salads or grains, mixed into pasta, or nibbled cold out of the container because I’m a monster. I knew a woman who bought a Market Basket rotisserie chicken every single week, got two meals out of it, then made stock. What do you do with yours?

If this post has left you craving some, don’t worry, you can watch a full length movie of one roasting thanks to Netflix. Or, you know, visit the Costco Rotisserie Chicken official Facebook page. Like you do.

Smoked Salmon, Potato, and Dill Tart

20160508-DSC_0264It is hot outside. Like, so hot. I am barely tossing together salads these days, let alone turning my oven to 450 for a nice golden tart crust. However, looking through photos recently, I realized I never did anything with the ones I took of a pretty decent smoked salmon tart I made for Mother’s Day this spring. Consider this a #latergram.

20160508-DSC_0256If you have a thoroughly air-conditioned kitchen, this would be an excellent dish to make ahead and have for cold summer lunches, or serve with mixed greens and chilled rosé for a perfect summer dinner.

For the base of my recipe, I used this one from the BBC. I liked two things about it. (1) It called for a quite easy custard mix of egg and cream, no separate heating or complicated multi-step whisking, and (2) it added thin slices of potato to the usual combo of salmon and dill. Potatoes are such a natural pairing with both dill and cream bases, and I felt they would provide a nice textural dimension in a tart that would otherwise melt in your mouth.

salmon tart with dill potatoesSteam the potatoes rather than boil them as the BBC suggests–it takes less time overall, and it’s easier to keep the potato slices intact with the gentler cooking method.

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I threw in much more dill than strictly called for, and used lemon instead of lime as that’s what I had around. Otherwise I stuck close to the recipe in an attempt to overcome my naturally relaxed approach to cooking–custard-filled pastry does not take kindly to anarchy.

This was a successful smoked salmon tart. Lovely, if not perfect: well-set custard, not too rich but rich enough to complement the fish and potatoes, and against which the dill and lemon popped.

(The shortcrust was gorgeous, if I do say so myself. Sparing you the photos because really, how many pictures of crust can a person look at in his lifetime, but I did a much better job with this one than my delicious Thomas Keller failure of recent memory.)

Black Forest Gateau

A few months ago I asked my friends for suggestions about what cakes to make in the future. Most of the requests I got I tried to act on quickly, depending on the availability of ingredients and whether I possessed all the tools needed to accomplish the dish in question, but one I put off. My friend Zoe asked for a Black Forest gateau, and in Googling recipes I came across this:

Black Forest Gateau

And just stared at it for a wee while, in awe. I know this woman has a good photographer–or is herself a good photographer–to produce images of her creations, but that cake is amazing. And she apparently created it in her own kitchen, no exceptional tools or training needed. I looked at a few other recipes, and decided that nothing was going to equal that cake. I wanted to attempt it, but lacked the courage. After a few weeks’ thought, I decided to give it a try as my birthday cake, in lieu of buying one this year. (Choosing a birthday cake has always been something of a ritual for me, and something I’ve been known to spend a disproportionate amount of money on. If you’re in Atlanta, give one of Metrotainment Bakery‘s creations a try some time. Their Georgia peach pound cake with bourbon caramel sauce is insanely good.)

Some adaptation of the recipe proved necessary, as thickened cream is something that apparently exists only in Australia, and I didn’t have cake tins of the specified size. (I found a nearly brand-new set of the requisite three tins at an estate sale about 24 hours after I finished the cake. As you do.) I also did something wrong with the ganache–at first the butter wouldn’t blend properly, or I didn’t have enough chocolate; it looked greasy and unpleasant. I added a bit more chocolate and cream, which improved it greatly, but it still lacked the consistency I wanted. I haven’t had much trouble with ganache in the past, so next time I’ll use a different recipe for that element.

Ganache mishaps aside, it was actually far less difficult than I’d feared. The cakes themselves are very easy, and turned out perfectly. They didn’t seem dry to me when they came out of the oven, but after being soaked with probably more than half a cup of syrup and kirsch each, they did not turn into a soggy mess. The other steps were almost as easy as the cake, but there was a fair bit of waiting for everything to come to room temperature before assembly, so I ended up running a bit low on counter space.

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Once everything had reached the requisite temperatures, the fun part began: dousing everything in kirsch. Because the alcohol evaporated out of the syrup in cooking the cherries, I added a few tablespoons of fresh kirsch to the cakes as well; the cherry flavour certainly came through in the finished cake, but I couldn’t taste the alcohol, as you would in a rum or a whiskey cake. Whether or not this is a good thing I will leave to your discretion. (Side note–I bought a variety of preserved cherries for the project, thinking I would need all of them–tinned cherries, frozen cherries, cherry jam. I may in the future add a swirl of cherry jam to the cake before baking, but on this occasion I used only the frozen cherries, boiled in kirsh. They were Trader Joe’s dark sweet frozen cherries, and they held up beautifully after a ten-minute boil, so I recommend them.)

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My finished cake didn’t look like Thalia’s, but I don’t think I did too badly. The cream looks like it overwhelms the cake, but it actually deflated a bit when the cake was chilled and I ended up adding a bit of the excess filling when serving slices once the cake was a couple of days old. It was also huge–I couldn’t get the top of the server on until a few slices had been cut and some of the fruit eaten. Next time I am determined to get the ganache to drip prettily down the sides–I am in the process of thinking up a recipe of my own for my next attempt.

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Fresh Fruit Tart

Tarts seem to be becoming a theme around here–must be the season. This week’s iteration of “probably a bit too ambitious for my skill level but I’m going to try it anyway” is a fresh fruit tart. A few years ago I ordered an enormous fresh fruit tart for a birthday cake from a swanky local baker’s, and I’ve been meaning to try doing one myself ever since. A friend of mine is planning a lunch party a couple of weeks hence and has asked me to provide the dessert, so I thought it a perfect time to try it; this is my practice run, because I’ve never made pastry cream before.

I couldn’t find a full recipe that had everything I was looking for, so I cobbled this together from a Martha Stewart recipe (the pastry) and the America’s Test Kitchen version (the pastry cream). Because this is my practice round, I went for the easy way out on the fruit–just raspberries and blackberries. Next time I’ll go for the fresh kiwi and mandarin orange slices and the works, but this time I just wanted to make sure I could cope with the tempering eggs part of the recipe. I managed to curdle the eggs in such a maneuver once before, and the fear has dogged me ever since.

Similar to the lemon meringue pie, this is one of those recipes done in stages–everything has to be chilled between assembly steps. This experience was less intense than the lemon meringue, though–the only part that requires careful attention is the pastry cream.

The first step is the crust. The birthday fruit tart of memory had a dense, thick crust, so instead of using the ATK recipe I went with Martha Stewart’s pate sucree (I can rarely bear to watch Martha Stewart on television, but she does have some good recipes.)

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I am eternally grateful for our Cuisinart. It’s about twenty-five years old, and I hope it never dies–I don’t think I’d have the patience to make pastry crust or shortbread without it. One day I will be organized enough to spend a morning making several batches of sweet and savoury pastry crusts so that I can just pull them out of the freezer…one day. When I’ve made up my mind which specific recipes I like best. The pastry crust was mixed, shaped into a ball, chilled for two hours, rolled out, shaped, and went into the oven. I wanted a relatively thick crust, so I rolled the circle out to about half an inch, and lined the inside edge with the excess dough, which turned out to be unnecessary. The dough was deceptively soft when raw, even when chilled, and I feared it was going to come out puffy and soft. It didn’t; it was firm without being claggy and overwhelming, but the next time I do this I’ll roll it out a little bit more, to leave more room for pastry cream.

After baking, the crust went back into the refrigerator to chill, and I started on the pastry cream. I used the ATK recipe, but halved it as it looked like it would produce a lot more than what I needed; this recipe from The Joy of Cooking is close to what I did. (And as a bonus you can add the liqueur of your choice! Something that did not occur to me until I tasted the final result.)

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Making the pastry cream was less fearsome than I expected, and I managed not to curdle the eggs (hurrah!). I added some almond flavouring, as I thought it would go nicely with the raspberries; next time, I’ll use amaretto rather than artificial flavouring. Once complete, it went back in the refrigerator–the instructions required a very specific three hours for this, although I’m sure if you poured it in a shallow pan it would take less time, even for a full recipe.

While the pastry cream was chilling, I added another tweak from the birthday tart of fond memory–I heated about 2/3 of a cup of chocolate chips and painted the inside of the cold shell with melted chocolate. Aside from being delicious, this seems to prevent the softening of the crust by the pastry cream and juice from the topping.

Finally all the elements were cooked and properly chilled. Assembly was easy, particularly as I wasn’t concerned on this occasion with layering everything in a nice pattern, as I will next time. Even with only half the recipe, I had more pastry cream than I could use, so next time the dough will definitely be rolled more thinly. I meant to use apricot jam to make the glaze (half a cup of jam + 1-2 tablespoons boiling water, mixed until the jam thins out), but discovered the jar I’d squirreled away mysteriously absent, so I used seville orange marmalade instead.

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I was concerned that the orange marmalade would be too strong a flavour and overwhelm the berries. If I’d used a different combination of fruit, I think I would have been right; with the blackberries, however, it tasted a lot like I’d added sherry to the mix, an effect I was quite pleased with. I also like the effect of the little shreds of orange peel on the finished product. I think in the future I will stick with the apricot jam, though; the marmalade glaze was still quite thick and made it difficult to cover all the fruit. All that said, I’m quite pleased with the result, and look forward to trying a grander version for company.

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