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

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.

 

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.

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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.

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.

last tart

Crispy Chicken with Lemon and Olives

Plate of crispy chicken with lemon and olivesI’ll take savory over sweet any day. I’ll also take simple over complex, luscious over ascetic. This quick dinner of roast chicken thighs with Mediterranean flavors hits all those notes. Also my goodness that skin. This is my usual Frankenstein’s monster of multiple recipes plus my own whim, so I’ll go ahead and take credit for the way it appears here.

*Disclosure: Not only did I only take pictures with my phone, but it was also dark in my kitchen. I’d say “lesson learned,” except this will doubtless continue to happen. Who, when they are actually busy cooking, has time to stop and take photos? Not I.

lemon olive roast chicken ingredients

Ingredients
  • 8 skin-on, bone-in chicken thighs
  • 3 t kosher or sea salt
  • Black and hot pepper to taste
  • 1/4 c flour (any; I used unbleached all-purpose)
  • 1/3 c olive oil
  • 4-5 sprigs fresh rosemary
  • 8-10 cloves of garlic, peeled (or more! live a little!)
  • 3 lemons, quartered
  • 1 c mild olives, chopped or whole (Cerignolas or Castelvetranos; if you use briny ones, or a mix, adjust your other salt levels accordingly or just use fewer)
  • 1/2-1 c chicken stock, white wine, or water
Method
  • Preheat oven to 400F.
  • Season chicken with salt and both peppers to taste.
  • Dredge the skin-on side of the thighs lightly in flour; tap off excess.
    • I absolutely stole this part from the NYT and I’m never going back to those sad, dark, pre-flour-dusted days.
  • Heat oil in large roasting pan over high heat (or two oven-safe skillets–just don’t crowd the chicken pieces and adjust oil quantity if necessary). When shimmering, add chicken, skin side down. Cook until golden brown, 3-5 minutes.
  • Flip the chicken so the skin side is up. Scatter olives, lemon pieces, garlic and rosemary over all, and add enough liquid to comfortably cover the bottom of your pan(s). Most of the chicken should be well above the liquid.
  • chicken (3 of 4)
    • I recommend leaving some of the olives whole, especially if you’re using large firm ones like the Cerignola. I cut an X on each one to help it absorb the cooking liquid. Made the olives incredibly tender and flavorful.
  • Roast until chicken is done and delightfully crispy on top–25-30 minutes.
    • Thigh meat is often dark or even pink (especially if you buy free range chicken) when done. It should read 165F on a meat thermometer or juices should run clear when cut near the bone.

Crispy roast chicken with olives and lemonI served with steamed cauliflower tossed in some butter and hot smoked paprika, with bread on the side for all the excellent juicy bits. (Leftovers the next night were excellent with roast broccoli salad and stuffing.) The bread deserves its own post at some point; it’s the King Arthur Flour no-knead bread recipe and it’s taking me some time to figure it out properly, but as you can see it is more than sufficient for excellent-juicy-bits duty.

This method is my favorite for large batches of chicken no matter what the flavor profile. Replace olives and lemon with quartered mushrooms and shallots, and rosemary with thyme. Maybe oranges, broccoli and dried chilis for a play on General Gao’s? (I just thought of this one and now I want to try it.) Or season the thighs with ras el hanout, replace half of the citrus with preserved lemon, and voila–Moroccan profile. So many options, so many easy weeknight dinners.

Lemon Lavender Meringue Pie (and Brownies)

I’ve been back and forth these last couple of weeks housesitting, so planning time to bake things has been tricky. I was away for most of Sunday, so my planned baking project–the pie–had to wait. Instead, I made Ina Garten’s outrageous brownies the Friday before, because they looked easy and I had a chocolate craving.

They are easy. They are also lethally rich. Half went in the freezer, four largish ones to the friends I was housesitting for, and the remaining ones are slowly slowly disappearing from the cookie jar, half-square by half-square. You can find the recipe (and demonstration) here. I neglected to take pictures of the process this time because I was in too much of a rush, but here is the final result:

Pie 11Not a drawback by any means, but I was a bit surprised that they didn’t have that crispy crust on the top that rich, sugary brownies often do–they’re gooier than I expected, particularly as I left them in the oven rather longer than recommended. My only other variation from the recipe was to leave out the espresso powder, although I’m sure they’re even more delicious with it.

Yesterday I set out to make my lemon meringue pie. I used the America’s Test Kitchen recipe, which can be found here (unfortunately there’s a paywall, although they do offer free trial subscriptions. If you come across any of their massive cookbooks in a second-hand shop or a yard sale, I recommend them–I have their meat book, their classic cookbook, and their baking book, and while this hasn’t stopped me from buying other cookbooks, they’re great fail-safes and they often explain a lot about the chemistry of why some techniques and recipes work when other standards are a matter of luck.)

It turned out to be an all-day affair; there’s quite a bit of make a part, let it chill, add another part, etc., and I was in and out running errands in between. I grated the lemon zest and squeezed the juice the night before, and started on the crust in the morning. I’m growing to like making pie crusts quite a bit–they always used to be a disaster for me when I was younger, so I’ve been buying ready-made ones for years. I’m not sure what I was doing so wrong before, but they’re working much better for me now.

Here are some of the ingredients, the chopped and frozen butter, and the completed and wrapped dough, ready for chilling. Allegedly there is some way to do this that does not involve a food processor. I would not recommend it–surely trying to incorporate frozen butter into flour rather defeats the purpose of the butter being frozen?

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Above is the dough after a couple of hours in the refrigerator. Rolling it out wasn’t as difficult as I’d anticipated. I used an all-butter crust for this recipe, not having any graham crackers on hand, but I think a graham-cracker crust is traditional for lemon meringue pies? My experience is limited. I’ve had lots of key lime pies in the past, but very few slices of lemon meringue.

Lemon 2

It did shrink a bit on one side; not sure why, as the dish was in the center of the oven. The damage wasn’t bad enough to make a difference to the end result, happily. Back in the fridge it went, for another hour or so.

Next was the filling. I was worried about this, because my cornstarch has in the past proved rather weak when it comes to doing its job, and I had barely enough for the recipe. I was also terrified that I would curdle the eggs–in all the recipes I’ve tried that required adding eggs to a moderately hot liquid, I’ve actually succeeded in not doing this, ever (knock on wood), but it remains one of the aspects of cooking I fear most.

Pie 3

  LemonPie 8

 

 

 

The eggs didn’t curdle, and the cornstarch did its job. This was the only point at which I altered the recipe, by adding about 1/4 of a teaspoon of culinary lavender oil (lavender and rose oils are strong stuff, one to two drops is enough for a cup of hot chocolate). I love the flavour of lavender, but there aren’t many other tastes it mixes well with; it does best with lemon and with chocolate.

I probably could have stopped at this point and been happy with the result, but the lemon curd by itself makes for quite an overpowering pie.  Back in the fridge again, for two hours this time.

Pie 1

Finally came the meringue. This was an Italian meringue rather than a French, like the one I got wrong before. Again, I was worried I would get the temperatures wrong and ruin the whole thing, but all came out well. I used an extra egg white, as the eggs I’d started with weren’t as large as I tend to use. I ran out of white sugar in this last measure, so I topped up the cup with turbinado. It didn’t make any difference to the taste, but the meringue was more ivory than white. (I don’t recommend this as a replacement–I used only a couple of tablespoons, but adding more would probably alter the chemistry of the meringue and cause disaster. I only resorted to the turbinado because the thought of going back to the grocery store close to rush hour nearly reduced me to tears.)

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I’m quite pleased with the finished product. The meringue did not collapse in the oven or afterward; it’s still fluffy and pretty this morning, although the necessity of covering it with plastic wrap for storage has damaged a few of the peaks. The flavour of the lavender didn’t come out as much as I’d hoped, so next time I’ll increase the amount of oil, perhaps a half or two-thirds of a teaspoon. It’s not the most complicated of recipes, but given the need to wait between the steps and before serving, it’s best kept for a weekend. On the plus side, there was plenty of time for cleaning up between steps, so at the end I didn’t have stacks of pots and equipment to clean–I got to sit down and enjoy a slice in peace.

Pie 15

Thomas Keller’s Mushroom Quiche

Thomas Keller mushroom quiche
The quiche we want is not always the quiche we deserve. This is Thomas Keller’s version, image c/o Food & Wine. Mine looked just like it.

Invited to a French-themed dinner party where the main event was duck l’orange and another guest had already volunteered the potato gratin, I volunteered a truffled quiche. Seemed fancy. Seemed hearty. Seemed appropriate. The thing is, I had never made a quiche. I don’t even really like quiche.

But then I saw a promising recipe on Food & Wine. It mentioned “silky custard” and “several inches high” which are the circumstances that apply when I do find myself enjoying a quiche. And once I had already obtained ingredients, I realized on a closer look that I had picked a Thomas Keller recipe. You know, he of that little-known hole-in-the-wall THE FRENCH LAUNDRY.

Perhaps I should have applied slightly more common sense at this stage. For instance, going to Whole Foods and buying a quiche. However: I did not. (In my defense, since I’m pretty comfortable with pastry and had the entire day to work, I figured I could take it slow and get it right, because apparently I have never met myself?!)

So here’s the deal, folks. Quiche is hard.

  1. Make a crust with so much butter you actually lie about it to people.

    Note: I did like Keller’s unorthodox stand mixer method for mixing the dough. I was dubious but stuck with it and will be using it in the future.

  2. Let it rest in the fridge and then let it come back up to rolling temperature. Pretend like you knew this would take about 2 hours.
  3. Par-bake this crust, which is several inches high, until it is golden brown.
    1. Check it halfway through and realize that you only put in half an inch of pie weights so your crust is toppling and shrunken, hahahaha no problem you’re only three hours behind on your schedule!
    2. Do ignore the fact that your kludgy crust-fixes will likely not work, and think gamely to yourself, “The top edges will be sliced off anyway!”

      Butter crust for quiche
      Totally normal. Everything is fine. This looks just like the picture.
  4. Slice up and cook, like, a lot of mushrooms. A lot. And some shallots.
    1. Make sure you use butter for this stage because you have not used enough butter yet.
  5. Let the mushroom mix cool In a panic, scatter the still super-hot mushroom mix over the pre-baked crust.
    1. Right! There should be cheese in this! Go find some and grate that s**t right in there.
  6. Make the first half of the egg-and-milk mixture for your custard and definitely do what I did and mix up the proportions so that then you have to retroactively mix in more milk to the sloppy mess already in the crust, carefully, with a whisk, while crying.
    1. Assure yourself that this is for sure what Thomas Keller does when he makes quiche.

      Iceland puffin photo
      Here is a picture of a puffin in Iceland! Isn’t this much better than those disaster photos I literally could not spare 2 seconds to take while cooking?
  7. Scatter the rest of your thankfully delicious mushroom mixture on top of the mess you just made. Top with the second half of the custard.
  8.  Watch the custard spill out onto the baking tray through the gaps in the crust that your kludgy fixes (see Step 3.2, above) failed to adequately stop. Crying more is okay at this stage, but personally, I recommend healthy, loud, really offensive cursing. Kick something!

    Kitchen mess during cooking
    Generally I am a “clean as you go” cook. Also: Dishwashers save lives.
  9. Figure you might as well bake it before throwing it away, and while it’s in the oven you can put on clothes that aren’t covered in flour and butter. Remember that dinner party you’re going to in–oh god it’s in an hour—-
    1. Assess the amount of cold coffee left in your cup, add an equal amount of Kahlua, and absolutely under no circumstances look over at the clock.
  10. Check the quiche a bit early. Experience the actual miracle of it being done! Be grateful for your friends making soothing noises at you. Transfer it to a pan not coated in a horrifying mess of custard spillover, pack it up for the ride to dinner, and hope for the best.

Turns out this tasted lovely. The bottom layer of custard did not set correctly, presumably due to my frenzied attempts to fix my proportion mistake, but it wasn’t too bad. And the top layer was in fact supremely silky and light despite having partially drained out the sides.

Thomas Keller mushroom quicheKeller’s method of layering the cooked ingredients and the custard layers did result in a beautiful distribution of mushrooms throughout the quiche. My black truffle salt and white truffle oil additions turned out to be right on the nose–not overwhelming (I thought) while still prominent. The par-baked crust stayed crispy and flaky and was nearly good enough to make one overlook its hideous aspect.

All in all, I was glad I hadn’t chucked this in the trash when steps 1-All of Them went wrong. A lesson in learning to love the imperfect.

Raspberry Chocolate Pavlova

This was my first attempt at a meringue, for this dessert, requested by my friend Emma. I love meringues but they’re not terribly common where I am–not impossible to find, I think most Whole Foods carry them, but not everywhere. Also, they’re pretty and versatile; they go well with all kinds of toppings and fillings.

I started out full of enthusiasm and hope, despite all sorts of warnings about what can go wrong with meringues.

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Ingredients and the basic meringue

  20160404_12590920160404_130313 Meringue with chocolate added, and shaped on the pan

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It was even pretty when it came out of the oven…but then it fell. It was fine for a bit, then deflated slowly over the course of the two or so hours between taking it out of the oven and whipping the cream to go on top. I followed the directions almost exactly, except to reduce the sugar to one cup, as per the numerous comments on the original recipe page, so either the lower sugar content requires some other intervention no one offering the advice mentioned, or I should have left it in the oven longer than the instructions allowed for (always a possibility, with my oven).

It still looked pretty, and tasted good–it is a nice, light dessert, and the flavour berries came through very nicely, really balanced with the chocolate rather than being a highlight. I didn’t need as much cream as the recipe indicated, and I dusted a bit of powdered sugar over the top of the chocolate shavings. I’m quite pleased, even if it is a deflated and not-crisp meringue, but I’ll do more research on meringues and do better next time.

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Update, April 5: Further research indicates that I beat the egg whites too quickly, and probably over-mixed them; there are also many recommendations for cooking at a lower temperature than the recipe recommended. My next attempt–a lemon meringue pie–should be better.