Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Cherry Pie for a Monday

Some pies are laborious works of art, showcasing the care and skill of the baker. This is not that kind of pie.

Some pies are delicious and homemade-enough for a Monday. This is exactly that kind of pie.

My wonderful husband took the kids to Hershey Park today without me. It was glorious to be alone in the house for the first time in three weeks. In my silent kitchen, I was able to contemplate the mysteries of life such as ... Why does school start after Labor Day? Why are teenage boys so disgusting? And is August necessary, really?

But then I finished my breakfast and figured I'd better do something already with those squishy sour cherries in the fridge. Lucky thing I have this awesome cherry pitter.

Frucht und Fun! Well, they're half right. Compared to pitting by hand, I guess it's fun. More like Frucht und Schnell, since it cranked out four cups of cherries in about five minutes. Danke Schoen!

If you don't have a pitter like this, then I recommend infinite patience. Or canned cherries.

I bought the Nabisco Famous Chocolate Wafers for another recipe. Why are they stocked in the cookie aisle? Who would eat these things by themselves? They taste like food from Medifast or Weight Watchers - kind of sweet, but unlikely to tempt you into a second portion. Shouldn't they be with the sprinkles or something?

Deep thoughts, I know. Did I mention there are two weeks more of summer break before school starts? Breathe deeply and bake a pie.

Cherry Pie with Chocolate Wafer Crust
3 tablespoons unsalted butter (45g)
25 chocolate cookies (150g) for crust, plus 6 more cookies for topping
baking spray
4 cups pitted sour cherries (760g)
3/4 cup sugar (150g)
1/4 teaspoon almond extract, optional
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
3 tablespoons cornstarch (22g)

8" pie plate, preferably glass

Preheat oven to 325˚ (300˚convection. Melt the butter in a small, glass bowl - just 45 seconds on high in my microwave. Set this aside to cool for a moment.

Pulse 25 cookies in the processor a few times to break up, then add butter and run the machine just a few seconds more to make something like dirt. Press crumbs into pie pan to make an even crust. Bake for 20 minutes, then cool on counter while pitting the cherries.

If you have extra liquid at the bottom of your bowl of cherries, you may want to pour it off here, since it just prolongs the baking time. Or not. Gently stir sugar, optional almond extract, salt and cornstarch into the cherries. Ease cherry mixture into crust, then arrange remaining cookies on top. Return to oven for 45-65 minutes, setting on a baking sheet to catch any drips. Sorry for the non-specific baking time, but the water content of sour cherries is pretty variable. It's done when you tilt the pan and see minimal liquid rolling around.

Cool on the counter for at least half an hour before slicing. Makes 8 smallish slices, or infinite zero-calorie forkfuls.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Flourless Chocolate Cake with Blueberries and Ganache

The macaron gods were not smiling on me today. However, I got hilarious letters from both my kids at camp. One described her afternoon as "so boringvil," and the other complained of a bunkmate who is "an absolute imbisule, he surprises us every day." How did these kids get so snarky?

Okay, I know how they got so snarky. But it took me years to develop this biting cynicism. They just have the gift!

Anyway, after I pitched my footless macs, I figured I'd better make something that would turn out. Obviously, cake.

I've been stalking #majachocolat on Instagram. She may have a recipe for this beautiful Blueberry Chocolate Tart on her blog, but I don't speak Danish, so I'll never know. She does take some gorgeous pictures though.

I adapted a flourless chocolate cake from Epicurious.com and added a ganache - ganache makes everything better. My supermarket berries were a little "boringvil." Tart, flavorful berries from the farmers' market would be ideal.

Chocolate Cake with Blueberries and Ganache
4.5 oz bittersweet chocolate (130g)
1 stick butter (115g)
3/4 cup granulated sugar (150g)
pinch of table salt
3 large eggs
1/4 cup Dutch-processed cocoa powder (20g)
2.5 oz milk chocolate (70g)
1.5 fl.oz. heavy cream (45ml)
10 oz. tart blueberries, washed and dried (280g)

8" round cake tin
baking spray with flour

Heat oven to 375˚ (350˚ convection). In a large, glass bowl or measuring cup, microwave the bittersweet chocolate and butter for about 90 seconds on 70% power. Whisk for another minute, allowing the residual heat to melt the chocolate. Mix in sugar and salt, then eggs one at a time. Sift cocoa powder over the chocolate, then whisk to combine. Spray cake pan, pour in batter and smooth with offset spatula. Bake for about 30 minutes, until top is just firm to touch. Cool in pan for five minutes, then invert onto plate. Flip over onto cooling rack so that it cools right-side-up.

Microwave milk chocolate and heavy cream in glass dish for about 35 seconds on 70% power. Remove and whisk smooth. Firm up in refrigerator while cake is cooling.

Spread a thin layer of ganache on top of cake, making sure to get close to the edges. If you have time, allow the ganache to set up on top of cake for half an hour so the blueberries don't sink. If not, no worries. Arrange the berries in concentric circles - channel the obsessive compulsive that lurks inside us all. Refrigerate for an hour before slicing.

This cake is very rich, so I cut it into 10 small slices.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Cucumber Salad with Blueberries and Feta

I know you're giving me the side-eye right now. I know this sounds weird and possibly gross. But just hear me out for a second, okay?

Sometimes I feel like the US is turning into one, giant Bed Bath & Beyond. Wherever you go, everything is exactly the same. From Tampa to Toledo, it's a never-ending parade of fatty meat with a side of California spring mix. Aisle after aisle of stainless steel, raspberry salad dressing, Sysco Systems and Tyson foods. Bo-o-o-ring.

So, when I see something different, I eat it. Deep Fried Snickers bars at the State Fair, yes ma'am. Liver quenelles at a French restaurant, mais oui. Cucumbers with blueberries and feta on the salad bar, damn skippy.

If you're not likely to run across it again soon, eat it today. What's the worst that happens? You don't like it? So what.

And, no, I didn't love the salad bar version of this dish. It was wet and bland and spiky with spears of dried oregano. But conceptually, it was a major improvement on the watermelon feta salad that's now a summer staple. Bright pink watermelon and fluffy feta look beautiful arranged in a bowl, but they morph into cloudy soup in half an hour. Blueberries don't leak, and their acid enhances the briny feta, rather than punching it in the face with sweetness.

Cucumbers are everywhere this time of year. They just need a little extra attention to stop them turning salads to a bowl of soup. These were very local.

And who doesn't have a pint of blueberries slowly shriveling in the back of the fridge right now?

Cucumber Salad with Blueberries and Feta
2-3 cucumbers
2 teaspoons kosher salt, divided
1 cup blueberries, washed and dried
1 teaspoon fresh oregano, minced
1 teaspoon fresh mint, minced
1/4 cup crumbled feta
1-2 spring onions, or 1/2 shallot, sliced fine
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon grainy dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon sugar

Line a rimmed baking sheet with two layers of paper towels. Peel half the cucumber skin off in alternating strips, then slice into thin rounds. Spread the slices evenly on the towel and sprinkle them with 1 3/4 teaspoons of kosher salt, reserving the last 1/4 teaspoon for the dressing. Leave for 45 minutes to sweat out the excess water. When the cucumbers have saturated the paper towel, put them in a colander and rinse off the excess salt. Blot them dry on a clean paper towel.

This salad will taste exactly the same if you throw everything together in a bowl. But you've just waited patiently for 45 minutes to sweat the cucumbers, so take an extra 90 seconds to plate it attractively, ya whiner! Arrange the cucumbers in two circles around the outside of your platter. Fill the middle with the blueberries, top with the feta, then the herbs. You can refrigerate the salad for a few hours like this, but don't put the dressing on until you're about half an hour from serving it.

Whisk together the remaining ingredients, including the 1/4 teaspoon of kosher salt, and pour over the salad. Serve cold or room temperature, 8 portions.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Peanut Milk Chocolate Macarons

It's a love/hate thing between me and macarons. I hate that they are so fiddly. You can't eyeball a quantity, or wander away from the mixer. You can't just vary the recipe by throwing in a handful of chocolate chips. And it takes a fair bit of experience to get them consistently right.

But they are so beautiful and delicate. And they cost such a bloody fortune in stores. So, twice a year I feel the need to make them. And the first batch fails, so I feel the need to make thirty more batches. Just to prove that I can. Happens to us all, right?

Baking 30 batches of macarons gets you on very good terms with the neighbors.

Traditional macarons are made with ground almonds, and it's much easier to mix it up by swapping out the nuts than it is to add a flavor to the temperamental egg white batter. So, here's the recipe for macarons made with ground peanuts. In some of the pictures, you can also see the ones made with macadamia nuts and filled with dulce de leche - I'll tell you about them some time.

It is the Law of Blogland that all posts on macarons must link back to the Bravetart. This is only right, since her minute instructions demystified macarons for everyone. If you've never made macarons before, go read through this post. My recipe varies a bit from hers, particularly in that I could never seem to get the last tablespoon of nuts down to a sufficiently fine powder. Then I realized I could just add an extra tablespoon on the front end, and dump the chunks in the sink without worry. Yes, it only took me 29 batches to come to this stunning realization.

At least the chocolate ganache filling is impossible to screw up!

One last note: I usually give measurements by both weight and volume. But that just will not work for macarons, which are minutely sensitive to ratios of dry and wet. Target will sell you a scale for less than $10 - the price of three macarons at a bakery. Just weigh it!

Peanut Chocolate Macarons
80g unsalted, shelled peanuts
140g icing (confectioner's) sugar
1/4 tsp salt
70g egg whites (from approximately 2 large eggs)
1 teaspoon powdered egg whites (optional)
35g granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
120ml heavy cream (4oz)
155g milk chocolate (5.5oz)

kitchen scale
parchment paper
pastry bag
plain icing tip

Weigh 80g of peanuts and 140g of confectioners sugar into the bowl of your food processor. Run the machine for four minutes, stopping every minute to scrape unmixed bits from the sides. Pass the contents through a sifter, then return any unsieved bits to the machine. Process for another minute, then sift again. Discard any remaining chunks that don't go through, stir in the table salt, and set the powder aside.

In a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the liquid and powdered eggwhites on medium speed until thick and foamy, about three minutes.  Add the granulated sugar in three parts, mixing for a minute after each addition. Crank the speed to high, and beat for about seven minutes more. You will know you're there when the meringue is thick and clumps in the middle of your whisk. Add the vanilla extract and beat for one more minute.

While the mixer is doing its thing, line two baking sheets with parchment.

Remove the bowl from the mixer and fold in the almond mixture. Fold forty times, then test by dropping a spoonful. If it mounds up before settling in about twenty seconds, you're ready to pipe. If it stays distinct, or if you can see lots of air bubbles, fold another ten times and retest.

When you reach the proper consistency, put a small, round tip on a piping bag and pipe 1.5" circles, or larger if you prefer. They should spread a bit, so leave at least two inches of space between them. After piping, bang the tray on the counter several times to knock out any air bubbles. Then leave it to dry for at least half an hour, depending on the humidity. Macarons are ready to bake when they form a skin which doesn't break when lightly touched.

Preheat oven to 290˚ (don't use convection), and bake the macarons for about 20 minutes. If you've hit that macaron sweet spot, you'll have little bubbly ruffles on the bottoms of your cookies. These are known as "feet," and they are a major fetish for macaron makers. These feet should look slightly dry, but not brown. Remove your pan, but don't put it down on the granite counter, which will cause it to cool too quickly. Rest it on a trivet or the burners of your stove for five or ten minutes, until you can peel the macarons cleanly off the parchment.

While waiting for the macaron shells to cool, microwave the chocolate and cream on full power for one minute. Whisk vigorously to dissolve the chocolate completely, microwaving for a further 15 seconds if necessary. Set ganache in a bowl of ice water and whisk until it is thick enough to pipe.

Using the same icing tip (washed of course) and a clean pastry bag, pipe about 1-1/2 teaspoons of ganache on a shell before sandwiching another to make macarons. Refrigerate for a day or two to develop the flavor and texture.

Makes about 24 finished macarons, which freeze perfectly.