Friday, June 26, 2015

Baked Brie with Berries

Brie is a soft bloomy rind cow's milk cheese named after the Brie region in France.  It’s a beautiful pale color covered in an edible white moldy rind.  Baking soft brie cheese in pastry is an old party hors d’oeuvres standby.  Sometimes chutney is added for a nice counterpoint of bright flavor.  It’s a rich and gooey bite to serve for cheese lovers.

My version is a quick appetizer or dessert course that involves flaky pastry, a small circle or wedge of luscious brie cheese and fresh raspberries and blackberries.  The berries really temper the richness and add a nice level of acidity.  It doesn’t take much effort at all and presents beautifully while still warm. 

Bon appétit!

Bench notes:
- The dough comes together very quickly in a food processor.  It will not look like a dough but rather like a slightly moist cottage cheese that comes together when you wrap it in plastic to chill (see this illustration). The important thing is to keep visible pieces of butter in tact and avoid blending it all into the flour.  
- Dough and berries can be prepared a day or two ahead.
- Once you’ve trimmed the edges of the dough, gather the scraps.  Roll them out and cut out a topknot.  Affix with egg wash.
- If your brie is in the form of a long wedge, just cut it into two pieces across the width and place them together side by side to approximate a square.

Baked Brie with Berries
Serves 8 – 10

1 cup (5 oz) flour
1/8 teaspoon salt
3 oz (6 tablespoons) cold unsalted butter
1/4 cup (2 oz) cold water

1/2 lb brie cheese
6 oz raspberries
6 oz blackberries
2 tablespoons (26 grams) sugar
2 tablespoons (1 oz) water
1/4 teaspoon lemon juice

1 egg + 1 tablespoon water + few grains of salt = egg wash

To prepare the pastry dough, place the flour, sugar and salt into the bowl of a food processor and blend.  Cut the cold butter into 1/2" pieces and add to the flour mixture.  Pulse until the butter is the size of small peas.  Add the cold water and pulse just until the dough starts to clump.  The dough will look a bit like small curd cottage cheese.  Gather the dough and place on a sheet of plastic wrap.  Form a disc and wrap tightly.  Chill thoroughly.

Place the berries, sugar and water in a saucepan.  Simmer over low heat just until softened, about 2 minutes, stirring to prevent scorching.   Take off the heat and stir in the lemon juice.  Set aside to cool.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.  Prepare the egg wash.

Place the dough on a very lightly floured silpat or a piece of parchment and let it warm up just enough to prevent cracking when you use your rolling pin.  Roll into an approximate 10 1/2" square.  Trim the edges to form a clean square and set aside the scraps. 

Move the dough to the baking sheet, then place the wheel of brie in the center. Top with the berries.  Fold the corners of dough up and around the cheese, sealing the edges with egg wash along the sides and at the top.  

Roll out the scraps and cut out a topknot.  Use the egg wash to place and secure it at the center intersection of the dough.  Brush the whole pastry with egg wash.

Bake until pastry is golden and cheese has melted, about 25 – 28 minutes.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Nectarine & Ginger Cobbler

Although we normally associate ginger with the dark cakes of the winter months and holidays, ginger also plays well with spring and summer fruit, especially peaches, nectarines and plums. 

I like Red Lion nectarines and use them here for a simple but delicious cobbler, a must have for this moment in our splendorous fruit season.  The recipe is a very straightforward one but I add some fresh grated ginger to the peaches for a nice note of spice that complements and brightens the fruit.

It’s times like this that I always revert to these kinds of cherished spoon desserts that never fail to impress.  You must indulge at least once, sometime soon.  No muss, no fuss; simple and just plain good.

Bench notes:
- I made individual servings but you can also use an 8” baking dish and make one cobbler.
- Taste your nectarines for sweetness and add sugar to taste.  Mine were pretty sweet so I kept the sugar to a minimum. 
- You can substitute peaches for nectarines.
- You can substitute heavy cream or sour cream for the buttermilk.
- I use an ice cream scoop to portion the dough, then spread it out evenly to cover the fruit.

Nectarine & Ginger Cobbler
Serves 6

8 nectarines (about 2 3/4 - 3 lbs)
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1/4 cup (1 3/4 oz) – 1/3 cup (2 1/2 oz) sugar, to taste
1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger         
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1 cup (5 oz) flour
3 tablespoons (39 grams) sugar                                                
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
generous 1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
2 1/2 oz (5 tablespoons) cold butter
1/2 cup (4 oz) buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla

1/2 oz (1 tablespoon) melted butter for brushing the tops
1 tablespoon turbinado (raw) or granulated sugar

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.  Place six 4” x 2” ramekins on a baking sheet.

For the filling, cut the nectarines in half and remove the pit.  Cut into 1/2” slices and place in a bowl.  Toss with the lemon juice and the sugar to evenly coat all the fruit.  Add the finely grated ginger and cinnamon and toss gently to distribute evenly.  Set aside. 

For the cobbler topping, whisk together flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt, ground ginger and cinnamon in a mixing bowl.

Cut the cold butter into small pieces and add to the flour mixture, tossing to coat each piece.  Using your fingers or a pastry blender, blend the butter into the flour until the mixture looks like coarse crumbs.  Combine the buttermilk and vanilla and add.  Stir with a fork until just combined without any dry patches. Do not overmix.  It will not look like a finished dough but a wet, lumpy and clumpy mass.

Toss the fruit and distribute into 6 ramekins.  Portion the dough evenly on top of the nectarines, covering the fruit completely.  Brush the top of the dough with melted butter and sprinkle generously with sugar.

Bake until filling is bubbly and the topping is golden brown, about 25 minutes.  Serve warm or at room temperature.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Honey Frozen Yogurt

There is nothing in the world like honey.  This sweet nectar is a cherished commodity.  And with ongoing reports of bee colony collapse disorder and its threat to the survival of bees, I’ve come to really appreciate it all the more.  Bees are such such an essential and integral element of a healthy natural food system, we have to hope that scientists are finding productive ways to preserve our bee colonies.  We do not have a future without them.

If you do one thing in your ice cream maker this spring, you’ve got to make this super delicious Honey Frozen Yogurt.  It’s light, really refreshing and showcases the astonishing earthy flavor of honey.  

It all starts with a simple plain yogurt, which has become a key ingredient in pastry over the last few years.  It’s often utilized as a healthier substitute for other dairy products in recipes for cakes and muffins, biscuits and scones.  But here, it’s the star ingredient.  The yogurt gets coaxed into perfection with a perfect measure of honey, some lemon juice to brighten the acidity, a slight touch of vanilla and a pinch of salt to heighten the best of all the ingredients.

This may be one of the easiest desserts you'll ever make.  Try it with sweetened berries and fresh apricots or peaches.  It doesn’t get any better than this!

Bench notes:
- Since homemade frozen yogurt doesn't contain any commercial emulsifiers, let it sit out for a few minutes to soften before serving if you’ve left it in your freezer for more than a couple hours.
- Use your favorite plain yogurt.  I’ve even made it with lower fat yogurt and it’s still great.
- I use enough honey for good flavor and then some sugar to sweeten.  Too much honey inhibits the yogurt from freezing properly.

Honey Frozen Yogurt
Makes about 1 3/4 pints

3 cups (24 oz) plain yogurt
1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons (3 oz) honey
1/4 cup (1 3/4 oz) sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
pinch salt

Whisk together the plain yogurt, honey, sugar, vanilla and lemon juice.  Add a pinch of salt, to taste.  Pour in an airtight container, cover and refrigerate until thoroughly chilled, preferably overnight.

Freeze in your ice cream maker according to manufacturer's instructions.  Pour into an airtight container and press a piece of plastic into the surface.  Cover and place in your freezer to firm up. 

Friday, June 5, 2015

Ultra Thin Chocolate Chunk Cookies

When esteemed chocolate expert and cookbook author Alice Medrich advises, I listen.  Her cookbooks are flawless examples of thorough testing and expertise, which result in reliably superb pastries and desserts.  It’s no wonder every cookbook she releases is an instant hit and award winner.

Alice is particularly proficient at creating wonderful cookies.  It’s interesting to note that her recipe for this Ultra Thin Chocolate Chunk Cookies comes with a few very explicit dos and don’ts.  They’re not terribly complicated but they are necessary to achieve the right taste and texture: a dramatically large, ultra thin and crisp cookie loaded with caramel flavor and wonderful bites of chocolate.

First, you need to let the cookie dough rest overnight for maximum flavor.  Second, these cookies need to be baked on foil for the cookie to acquire the right level of crispness.  And since these cookies spread out to about a 5” diameter, you’ll need to place only 5 per sheet pan.  You’ll also need to flatten the cookie dough to a diameter of about 3 1/2” before baking so they’ll spread out properly.  Lastly, the cookies need to bake for 20 – 25 minutes to achieve the right caramelization and super crisp texture.  If you don’t bake them until they take on some good color, they won’t crisp up after they cool.

So, if you don’t mind playing by the rules, give this recipe a try.  You’ll wind up with quite a good snappy cookie, a worthy departure from the usual chocolate chip variety.  

Bench notes:
- Do follow Alice’s advice on all these steps and you’ll get a full-flavored cookie that really snaps.
- Make sure the dough is cool after adding the melted butter before you add the chocolate chunks so they won’t melt while mixing.
- If you need to bake these cookies the same day, let the dough rest for a few hours at room temperature.
- Slide the cookies and foil onto wire racks and proceed to the third batch.  Let the cookies cool on the foil.
- A small offset spatula is very handy for removing the cookies after they’ve cooled.
- The cookies will keep in an airtight container for about 3 days.  Good luck with that.

Ultra Thin Chocolate Chunk Cookies
Makes fifteen 5” cookies

5 oz (10 tablespoons) unsalted butter                           
1 1/3 cups (170 grams) flour                   
1/2 teaspoon baking soda                                                                       
1/2 cup (42 grams) oatmeal                                            
1/2 cup (100 grams) granulated sugar                                      
1/4 cup (50 grams) dark brown sugar, packed                        
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon (55 grams) light corn syrup
2 tablespoons whole milk                                                            
1/2 teaspoon salt                                                                           
7 ounces (200 grams) bittersweet (72%) chocolate, coarsely chopped into small chunks
Melt the butter and set aside to cool.

Whisk together the flour and baking soda and set aside.

In a separate bowl large enough to hold all the ingredients, stir together the melted butter, oats, both sugars, corn syrup, milk, and salt.  Add the flour mixture and combine thoroughly.  Stir in the chocolate chunks.  Cover the dough with plastic wrap and chill overnight.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.  Position your oven racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven.

Divide the dough into 15 equal pieces, each one a scant 1/4 cup (or 50 grams each if you have a scale).

Line 3 baking sheets with aluminum foil.  Place 5 pieces of dough (4 in a square pattern and 1 in the center) on each sheet of foil. Use your fingers to flatten each piece to about 3 1/2” in diameter. 

Bake until the cookies are thin and browned, about 20 to 25 minutes, rotating the pans from top to bottom and front to back halfway through the baking time to ensure even baking.  Slide the foil with the cookies onto racks and leave them on the foil to cool completely.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Lemon Yogurt Cake with Cherries

For me, spring and summer are the perfect time for simplicity.  Time for relaxation over long, lazy meals al fresco and good conversation.  And dessert should be equally simple and fresh.  So during these months, I like to emphasize fresh fruit and unfussy pastries and rustic desserts.

If you're a lemon fan, you’ve probably already discovered Ina Garten’s Lemon Yogurt Cake.  It’s a luscious cake with great lemon flavor and a beautiful crumb, a recipe that works for lots of different applications.  It’s delicious all by itself or alongside your favorite fruit.  Here I reach for the new delivery of bright red cherries, among the very best gems at the market.  Let's hope this year provides us with a bountiful crop. 

The cherries this season are terrific.  Here I’ve prepared them with some sugar, orange zest and a splash of balsamic to lend a note of acidity and brightness.  A quick simmer on the stove softens them to a tender juicy bite.

Lemons and cherries, definitely a winning combination.  Happy spring!

Bench notes:
- Fresh cherries don’t need much sugar.  Sweeten to your own taste and add balsamic a bit at a time until the compote has just enough of an acidic pop.
- The original cake recipe calls for an 8 1/2” x 4 1/4” x 2 1/2” loaf pan, so you can prepare this as a loaf cake if you wish.  Bake for about 50 minutes.
- Garten soaks the cake with 1/3 cup lemon juice and 1/3 cup sugar that has been boiled to dissolve the sugar.  Then she garnishes it with a glaze of 1 cup powdered sugar and 2 tablespoons lemon juice.  I just used a lemon simple syrup.

Lemon Yogurt Cake with Cherries
Serves 8

Cherry Compote
3 cups fresh cherries (about 1 lb, 2 oz)
1/4 cup (1 3/4 oz) sugar, to taste
zest of 1 orange
1 - 2 tablespoons balsamic, to taste                                          
few grains of salt

Lemon Yogurt Cake

1 1/2 cups (7 1/2 oz) flour
2 teaspoons baking powder        
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup (8oz) plain yogurt
1 cup (7 oz) sugar
3 eggs @ room temperature
2 teaspoons grated lemon zest (2 lemons)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup (4 oz) canola oil

Lemon Glaze
1/4 cup (2 oz) lemon juice
1/4 cup (2 oz) water
1/2 cup (3 1/2 oz) sugar

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.  Lightly grease an 8” x 2 1/2” cake pan and line the bottom with a round of parchment.

For the cherry compote, pit the cherries and place them in a saucepan with the sugar and the orange zest.  Cook over low heat until the juices begin to flow. Add the balsamic vinegar and a few grains of salt and cook just until the cherries are tender.  Take off the heat and let cool while you prepare the cake batter.

Sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the yogurt, sugar, eggs, lemon zest, and vanilla.  Slowly whisk in the flour mixture.  Using a rubber spatula, fold the vegetable oil into the batter until thoroughly combined. Pour the batter into the prepared pan.

Bake until a tester placed in the center of the cake comes out clean, about 28 – 30 minutes. 

While the cake is baking, make the glaze by bringing the lemon juice, water and sugar to a boil until the sugar is dissolved.  Set aside.   

Place the baked cake on a wire rack to cool for 10 minutes.  Invert the cake and remove the pan.  Gently remove the parchment paper.  Invert the cake again so it’s right side up and place on a wire rack that has been set on top of a sheet pan.  Slowly pour the glaze over the cake and allow it to soak in.  Cool the cake completely.

Garnish the cake with a sprinkle of powdered sugar and serve with the cherry compote.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Apricot Oatmeal Bars

Despite our very gloomy local weather, another thrilling apricot season has arrived. And, as luck would have it, my first purchase of apricots is gorgeous.  They are a good size with a beautiful ripened color, great texture and wonderful flavor.  I am blissed.

My first project of the season is Apricot Oatmeal Bars.  With fruit this good, I like to veer in the direction of keeping things very simple.  These are very easy to prepare and are more like a slice of easy crumbly pie.  I add oatmeal to the pastry because I am an oatmeal freak and wanted to pair off two of my favorite ingredients in a happy marriage of pastry deliciousness.  The apricots are simmered for just a few minutes with sugar and honey to coax out their juices.  The whole batch is baked in no time, a very good beginning to this season of plenty.

People, do not forget that apricot season is hideously, devastatingly brief, so do not waste your time ruminating about it.  Get yourself to the market, STAT!  

Bench notes:
- As they simmer, taste the apricots for sugar.  Baking does bring out their tartness, so add enough to take it right up to your preferred level of sweetness.
- Don't let the fruit boil.  Keep the apricots at a low simmer to preserve their flavor.  Cook them just long enough so they’re softened and pliable, not mushy. They can be made a day or two ahead. Store in an airtight container in your refrigerator.
- For the apricots, I just used a piece of vanilla from my vanilla sugar jar, where I keep all my used pods.  If you don’t have any, you can substitute 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract.  Add once you take them off the heat.
- Rinse your vanilla pods and dry.  Add to a jar of sugar to hold for future use.  Both the sugar and the pods can be used again and again.
- This crust/topping is crisp and very crumbly.  If you prefer a chewier version, change up the flour/oatmeal ratios, substitute some brown sugar and add some baking powder as follows: 1 cup (5 oz) flour + 1 3/4 cups (5 1/4 oz) oatmeal; 1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons (2 3/4 oz) granulated sugar + 1/4 cup (1 3/4 oz) brown sugar; and 1 teaspoon baking powder.
- I used old-fashioned oatmeal rather than quick oats.
- If you’re a fan of cinnamon, add a pinch to the topping and/or the apricots.  It’s a great flavor combination.
- If you have an ice cream maker, save your apricot pits and make the unforgettably sublime Noyau Ice Cream.

Apricot Oatmeal Bars
Makes 16 bars

8 (1 lb, 4 oz) ripe apricots                                      
3 tablespoons (39 grams) sugar, to taste                     
1 tablespoon (1/2 oz) honey
1 tablespoon (1/2 oz) water                                                                                               
1/4 vanilla bean

1 1/2 cups (7 1/2 oz) flour                         
1 1/4 cups (3 3/4 oz) oatmeal                                          
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons (4 1/2 oz) granulated sugar                                     
6 oz (12 tablespoons) cold butter
1 teaspoon vanilla

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.  Lightly grease an 8” square pan and line with a piece of parchment paper large enough to form an overhang along two sides of the pan.

Cut the apricots into 1/2" slices.  Place them in a saucepan along with the sugar, honey and water.  Split and seed a 1/4 portion of a vanilla bean and add the seeds and the pod.  Cook on low heat for about 5 minutes at a slow simmer or until the apricots just begin to become tender.  Take off the heat and cool.  Remove vanilla pod.

Combine the flour, oatmeal, salt and sugar in the bowl of a food processor. Process until ingredients are combined and the oats are chopped up a bit but not ground completely.

Cut the cold butter into 1/2” pieces and add to the dry ingredients along with the vanilla. Pulse until the mixture starts to clump. It should remain a bit loose but hold together when pinched.  Pour into a bowl and toss with your hands.

Press about 2/3 of the oatmeal mixture into the prepared pan to form an even bottom layer.  Bake until the surface is puffed up and looks dry and slightly browned, about 15 – 20 minutes.
Pour the simmered apricots on top and spread to within 1/4” of the edges.  Top with the remaining crumb mixture, making sure to distribute to the edges and the corners to form a border.  Press down gently to secure.

Bake until the crumb topping is lightly browned around the edges, about 20 - 25 minutes.  Place the pan on a wire rack to cool completely.  Run a thin knife around the edges and gently lift out of the pan using the parchment overhang to assist.  Cut into bars.