Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Pistachio Piecrust Pinwheels

These cookies started out as one of those delicious little accidents. I was slated to get together with a new friend, and both of us, short on weekday inspiration, listed off some of our neighborhood go-tos. Pleasant walks and dinners and parks, to be sure, but a bit of the usual rut. And then, in a last-minute burst of inspiration, we decided to drive out for a sunset picnic in the Columbia River Gorge.

Portland proper has many undeniable charms and green spaces. But the gorge, cutting between Oregon and Washington, is just ridiculously breathtaking. And I easily forget that in just a half hour or so, you can be taking in a scene so dramatically, panoramically staggering it makes your heart explode a little bit.

The Vista House is a little turban of a building on a summit of the gorge, intended by its builders to be “an observatory from which the view both up and down the Columbia could be viewed in silent communion with the infinite.” Sounds about right. But with the destination set, and just a few workday hours remaining before we set out, I needed to figure out what to bring.

My friend Adrian did the heavy lifting, promising some leftover pizza, smoked salmon, and a bottle of wine that we ended up bashing the cork into due to our failure to remember a bottle opener (leaving us with some fibrous bits and an overwhelming feeling of accomplishment). I didn't have enough time to hit the store, so I shopped in my kitchen. I grabbed a couple of carrots, a bag of cherries, a jar of pickles fermented by a friend, and a few squares of chocolate. But it didn't seem like I was quite pulling my weight. And then I remembered the small lump of pastry dough, left over from my recent spate of tart-making.

So I rolled out the dough, and sprinkled it with a generous sanding of coarse sugar, and some roughly-bashed cardamom seeds and finely-chopped pistachios. Because I only had a small lump of dough, I ended up with delicate little cookies, just an inch-plus in diameter. But they're actually kind of fun that way. Just teensy little spirals, a lovely match for a saucer of tea.

Or, in this case, a picnic. These perfect little rounds capped off a perfect little evening, full of open-hearted talks and breathtaking beauty and a reminder of how open the world can be. The unexpectedness of these cookies — and of the shape of the evening itself — made everything all the sweeter. 

Pistachio Piecrust Pinwheels

As you can see, this is more of a template than a recipe (as seems to be a trend lately), easily adapted to whatever amount of pastry you have on hand.

leftover pie/tart dough (I used the cookie-like pate brisee, but standard piecrust will make for a nicely flaky variation)
coarse sugar
cardamom seeds, pounded to not-too-big bits in a mortar and pestle
pistachios, finely chopped
egg, beaten with a pinch of salt and splash of water/milk (optional)

On a lightly floured countertop, roll out your leftover dough to a rectangle that is about 5 inches high, and 1/4-inch thick (the length needed to achieve these dimensions will vary based upon how much dough you've got). Sprinkle the dough with a generous sanding of sugar, then the cardamom seeds and pistachios to your taste (the cardamom seeds are fairly strong, so don't go too nuts with those). Then roll up the dough like a jelly roll, tightly, making sure the end seals. Wrap the dough tightly in waxed paper or plastic wrap, and place in the refrigerator to chill for about half an hour.

When the dough is almost finished chilling, preheat your oven to 400° degrees Fahrenheit. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper, or just grease it, and set aside.

Take your chilled log of dough, and place it on a cutting board. With a sharp knife, slice the dough into 1/4-inch pinwheels. Transfer to your prepared cookie sheet, and repeat with remaining dough. If desired, brush with the egg wash, and sprinkle with additional sugar. Bake until lightly golden, ~10-12 minutes. Let cool, then pack for your picnic.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Fresh Fruit Tart

There's nothing like making a recipe over and over (and over and over) until you get it down. Grandmothers who bake biscuits every Sunday or challah every Friday don't have to think about recipes — they have the technique in their fingers. They sprinkle in extra flour if it's damp, or less if the eggs were large, knowing without even thinking how things should feel. I once read a story about culinary school in a sweet little now-defunct food zine, where the author mentioned her terror at the beginning of egg-poaching day. "I don't really know how to do that well," she admitted. "Just think," her instructor enthused, rolling out a rack with dozens upon dozens upon dozens of eggs, "after today, you're never going to be able to say that again."

This mastery can sometimes be out of reach, for those of us who didn't go to culinary school, or are enthusiastic generalists rather than single-minded specialists. But, if I do say so myself, after a rather deep-diving month, I must say that I feel I know the fresh fruit tart backwards and forwards.

The inspiration for this obsession was a friends' wedding. The couple asked if I'd be willing to make up six fruit tarts, to round out a dessert table that ended up including 3 delicious half-sheet cakes, and a small vegan and gluten-free layer cake (adorably iced with the words "vegan and gluten-free"). These are good people, with an appreciation for good food (and good stories — the bride and I co-produced this piece last year), and a love that deserves a beautiful fruit tart. Or six of them. But in order to make desserts worthy of the occasion, I needed to call in some advice.

My friend Olga coached me through my initially slumping crusts, and Adrian provided additional advice (and even offered to let me break into her home while she was on vacation to borrow some tart pans). The former pastry chef who teaches my Women on Weights class fielded far, far too many questions in the 60-second bursts allotted each station, and shared a pastry cream recipe using some whole eggs (meaning I was only left with two- rather than three-dozen leftover yolks at the end). Multiple friends (bride included) loaned tart pans, and tasted versions along the way. And then, the night before, when I realized holycrap I've been focusing on recipes and don't even know how these things should look, Leela and Rebecca graciously responded to my last-minute freak-out ("Abundance is key to a beautiful tart. Some pics to describe my philosophy are attached. Almost no pattern is needed, just go MORE xoxo"). Mastering the fruit tart clearly takes a village.

With this mountain of input, and tart after tart, I just got good at things. These were lessons that came from other people's hard work and wisdom, a few failures, and, more than anything else, a mountain of butter and milk and eggs that let me just go at it until it was in my bones. And, while it's still tart season, I wanted to share some of the overall delicious lessons I've learned:

  • Freeze your rolled-out tart dough. I used to make tarts in a ceramic pan, which works well enough (especially for tarts that are filled prior to baking). But if you want wedding-worthy perfection, you need a metal pan that you can freeze. Not refrigerate. Not freeze "until firm." Freeze for an hour, at least.
  • Weigh down your tart dough. Yes, some of the magic recipes don't need to be baked with pie weights. But again, we're going for wedding perfection, sans slumping. Butter up some foil, line the dough (pushing down into the edges), and weigh it down. And use pennies! They're heavy, and they conduct (thanks, Olga!).
  • Do not use a nonstick pan. Aside from the perflourinated chemicals that just might kill you, these also shrink/slump much, much more than your standard metal pan.
  • Keep your dough from getting soggy. This takes two forms: don't actually assemble the tarts that far in advance, and brush the crust with some sort of barrier — you can use white chocolate (props to Gillian for that professional trick), or an egg wash brushed on the last few minutes of baking.
  • Fully cook your pastry cream. In the fear of curdling (which, if you're careful in integrating your ingredients, shouldn't be a problem), many bakers snatch their pastry cream off the stove before it's fully cooked through. You need things to bubble (while furiously whisking) for a good solid minute or two, allowing the cream to thicken and the starch to cook off any remaining raw taste.
  • Abundance! Leela is so right on this one. Summer (and weddings) are about love and bounty bursting forth, and you want your tarts to show the same. You really can't go too far. Fan out cut fruit to show its beauty, but this isn't the time for perfect spirals. You should have fans of fruit bumping up  against each other, going beautifully in multiple directions, covered over or propped up by other fruits, because the days are not full enough and the nights are not full enough and we are gathering the rosebuds while we may and all that. I took the Tartine trick of glazing the cut fruit (in this case, an assortment of peaches, nectarines and plums), but then tumbling the berries just as they are, which gave a nice mix of messy and polished.
  • Repeat, repeat, repeat. These tips, a distillation of all the good advice I received, will put you in a fine starting place. But there really is no substitute for getting it down, and the sixth tart will undoubtedly be a different animal than the first. The wedding definitely gave me a crash course, and I'm happy that I could add some additional sweetness to a truly beautiful night. But I'm going to keep at it. This may be some lifelong learning here. Which is fine with me.

Fresh Fruit Tart

crust adapted from Dorie Greenspan's Baking: From My Home to Yours, pastry cream from Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook (I ended up using a different one for the tarts, which used weights, which was better for my mass quantities and irregularly-sized farmer's market eggs, but this one is also delicious and great for the single tart), and a hundred other assists from the lovely folks listed above.

1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 cup confectioner’s sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 stick plus 1 tablespoon (9 tablespoons; 4 1/2 ounces) cold unsalted butter, cut into pats
1 large egg yolk (since my eggs were on the smaller side, I used 1 yolk and 1 full egg per double batch, which worked well)
1 egg, beaten with a pinch of salt and splash of milk/water, for glazing

To make the crust: Put the flour, sugar and salt in the bowl of a food processor, and pulse a few times to combine. Scatter the pieces of butter over the dry ingredients, and pulse until the butter is coarsely cut in (you want pieces between the size of oatmeal and peas). Add the yolk, and pulse in long pulses until it forms clumps and curds (just before this happens, the sound of the machine will change — head's up!).

When the dough clumps, turn it out onto a clean work surface or bowl, and, very lightly and sparingly, knead the dough just to incorporate any dry ingredients that might have escaped mixing. Wrap the dough ball in plastic or parchment, and refrigerate for about two hours (and up to two days).

When the dough is chilled, butter a 9-inch tart metal tart pan with a removable bottom. Roll out the dough to about an inch larger than your pan — it's easiest to do this between two sheets of plastic wrap or parchment, peeling them back frequently so they don't get rolled into the dough. Press the rolled-out dough into your pan, folding over the sides to a double thickness and making sure everything is smooth and even. Freeze the crust for at least an hour.

When the crust is frozen, preheat the oven to 375° Fahrenheit.

Butter the shiny side of a piece of aluminum foil, and place it, buttered side down, tightly against the crust. Fill it with pie weights (pennies!). Place on a baking sheet (because the butter, it will drip out a bit), and bake for ~20-25 minutes, until lightly golden. Carefully remove the foil and weights. If the crust has puffed, press it down gently with the back of a spoon (or prick it with the tip of a small knife — not all the tines of a fork, or you may end up with a bigger hole). Bake the crust for another 5 minutes, then brush with an egg wash. Bake another few minutes, until firm and golden brown (color = flavor). Transfer the pan to a rack and cool the crust to room temperature. If making a day in advance, wrap the crust in plastic wrap or slip into a bag once fully (and I mean fully) cool.

Pastry Cream:
2 cups whole milk
1/2 cup sugar, divided in half
pinch salt
1/2 vanilla bean (if you prefer, you can use 1 1/2 teaspoons of vanilla extract instead, stirred in with the butter, or a combination of the two)
1/4 cup cornstarch
4 large egg yolks
2 tablespoons butter, cut into small pieces

In a medium saucepan, combine the milk, 1/4 cup of the sugar, and the salt. Split the vanilla bean in half, scrape out the seeds, and place both the bean and seeds in the saucepan. Cook over a medium heat, until the mixture just begins to steam.

While the milk is heating, in a large bowl whisk together the remaining 1/4 cup sugar and cornstarch, then the yolks, mixing until smooth.

When the milk mixture is steaming, take about 1/2 cup of it, and, whisking constantly, slowly pour it into the egg yolk mixture, whisk-whisk-whisking until incorporated. Tempering! Repeat with remaining milk mixture, then transfer everything back into the saucepan. Raise the heat to medium-high, and, whisking constantly (notice a theme?), bring it just to a simmer. The mixture will thicken, but continue to cook 1-2 minutes when it's at the bubbling point. Remove from heat, stir in the butter, and fish out the vanilla bean. Transfer immediately to a bowl, and cover with plastic wrap or parchment, pressed directly on the surface to prevent a skin from forming. Refrigerate until chilled, at least 2 hours, and up to 2 days.

To Finish:
lots and lots of fruit!
a relatively neutral jam or jelly (I used quince)
a few sprigs of mint or other fresh herbs

To finish the tart, take your chilled pastry cream, and whisk it until it becomes smooth again. Spread it evenly in your prepared tart shell. If you're using fruit that you're going to slice (stone fruits, pomes, supremed citrus segments, etc.), heat up 1/4 cup jam or jelly in a saucepan over a low heat, until it gets runny. Jam needs to be strained, but jelly is fine as it is.

Slice any fruits you're going to slice, and fan them on top of the tart in any patterns to your liking. Dip a pastry brush in the heated jelly/jam, and gently brush the cut fruit to keep it beautiful. Take any remaining fruit that doesn't need glazing (berries, cherries, currants, pomegranate arils, etc.), and scatter them generously in overflowing clusters. Tuck a few fresh herb sprigs here and there, and return everything to the refrigerator for an hour or so to set. Serve.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Chilled Cantaloupe Soup with Poached Shrimp

The heat continues! Temperate Portland has been in the 90s for weeks. Weeks! Yes, there are hotter places in the world. But for us, this is far from our usual no-need-for-air-conditioning state of affairs. I realize that even a functional planet has cycles and oscillations and all that, but it's hard not to feel like we're on a march toward some sweaty inevitable crash course with the sun. Or perhaps I'm being dramatic? I can't tell. It's hard to think straight, what with all this heat.

So yes, the world does seem to be on a path that ends in fire. But, on the bright side, I've rediscovered cold soups.

Now this may seem a strange combination. But it's not too far from gazpacho, a similarly sweet-savory blend of cooling summer produce. Also, it's dead simple, one of those dishes whose flavor and wow factor far exceeds the effort involved. Basically it looks like this: cantaloupe, cucumber, and a touch of onion get tossed in the blender, seasoned and smoothed with olive oil and vinegar. Then poached shrimp are tossed on top, and the whole thing is finished with a sprinkling of olive oil and chives. What more do you need? And, more importantly, on these tropical days, what more do you have the energy for?

Chilled Cantaloupe Soup with Poached Shrimp

adapted from A Day That is Dessert (thanks!)
yields ~4 cups, as small appetizer-y servings

1 small cantaloupe melon (or one large one, with about 1/3 reserved for snacking), ripe and fragrant
1 small cucumber or 1/2 large cucumber, peeled and roughly chopped
1-2 tablespoons chopped onion
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
salt and white pepper
~12 small or medium-sized shrimp (either standard or salad shrimp will work — I used a small bag of frozen spot prawns)
a small handful of chives, minced

To make the soup: Place the melon, cucumber, the smaller amount of onion, olive oil, and vinegar in a blender, along with a splash of water. Process until smooth. Add salt and pepper to taste, and adjust seasonings as needed, adding remaining onion if desired. Process again to blend, and add additional water if needed to create a smooth soup. Set aside in the refrigerator to chill while you prepare the shrimp.

To poach the shrimp: Bring a small pot of heavily salted water to a boil (I also like to throw in a pinch of sugar as well). When it's boiling, add the shrimp, then turn off the heat and cover the pot. Let sit until the shrimp turn opaque and pink, ~5 minutes (it will be more or less depending upon the size). While they're sitting, prepare a bowl of ice water, and when they're ready, drain the shrimp, and slip them in the ice water to stop the cooking. Peel the shrimp from their shells. If the shrimp are large, you can chop them, but if they're smaller you can leave them whole.

To serve, pour out a small cup of soup, and top with a portion of shrimp. Scatter on a drizzle of olive oil and some chives, and serve.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Belarussian Bruschetta

I once read a line in a story about a sink that was filled with "summer dishes" — the detritus of 90+ degree days that is free of pots and pans and spatulas. Instead, it's the clink of water glass and iced tea glass, the puddle of melted ice cubes, and the drippy-sticky knives and boards and bowls left over from preparing fruit and salad.

That's pretty much what my sink looks like in these spate of summer days. And I have no regrets. It's been cold yogurt and jam for breakfast, and "meal" means salads full of butter lettuces and basil leaves and raw corn and peaches picked from over the office door. Sometimes there's a handful of chips of spoonful of ice cream, but that's pretty much it. Oh, and these Belarussian bruschetta.

I know, Russian food isn't most people's idea of summer dining. But, as I've argued before, it really should be. Yes, Russia is cold. But it also has hot, sticky summers. And people know how to make the best of them, with summer cabins and juicy-sour pickles and fresh sour cream. This tartine is my homage to that, an iteration of an open-faced sandwich that may never have been eaten in the motherland, but captures some of the best of its spirit.

My Brooklyn-Belarussian grandfather relished summertime meals, usually involving the tomatoes grown in his backyard buckets (after he ate the last one of the season, he would proclaim that he would not touch another tomato until the next harvest, which was a rather radical seasonal-dining manifesto in the 1980s). And on the hottest days, he would chop up a smattering of fresh herbs, mix them in with cottage cheese, and spread the mixture on some dark rye or pumpernickel bread. What more do you need?

As a good granddaughter, I've followed his example. I grabbed some farmer cheese instead of cottage cheese, though either would do fine. Instead of mixing everything together, I just lay a swipe of the cold cheese on toasted bread, then top with a few tomatoes, and sprinkle on the chopped herbs right before enjoying. The end result is a perfect Ruskie tartine, all sour bread and punchy herbs and mild cheese, tasting fresh and summery, but refreshing as a juicy dill pickle. It doesn't dirty much more than your cutting board, and it's just about perfect for a hot summer night.

Belarussian Bruschetta

makes as many as you'd like

sliced bread, preferably a nice dense rye or brown bread
farmer cheese
fresh tomatoes (halved, quartered or sliced, depending upon the size)
fresh scallions, thinly sliced
fresh dill, finely chopped
coarse salt and black pepper

Toast or (even better) grill your bread (if grilling, you can brush first with oil or melted butter). Spread with a generous swipe of farmer cheese, then pave with fresh tomatoes. Sprinkle on a generous dusting of fresh herbs, then season with salt and pepper. Enjoy.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Purslane Salad with Cherries and Feta

My small backyard has fences cordoning off the south and west sides. But the third side is open, separated from the neighbor's house only by our shared driveway. Although his off-leash time was initially highly supervised, these days my dog is generally allowed to backyard trips on his own recognizance. He's a fairly quiet older dog, and unless the next-door barbecue is in use, or a cat wanders by, he'll just do his business, then nose his way back inside. And in the summer, he'll sprawl out on the porch, yard or driveway (depending upon the sun's angle), tanning until he needs to come inside, panting, and collapse on the cool floor in a dramatic clatter of elbows. For the most part, this works out fine. Except in cherry season.

The yard next door features a dramatically large cherry tree, and in the summer it's absolutely dripping. They are the favorite of loud-yelling crows, and the occasional raccoon. And, it turns out, my dog.

After giving a nominal check that the coast is clear, the dog pads across the driveway and begins chowing down. He eats the fresh bright red ones, and the raisined shriveled ones. If you catch him in the act, he'll slink back home with tail-tucked contrition. But then he'll be right back. Even when the resulting gas literally drives him from his own bed later that day (with a wide-eyed ohmygod what just bit my butt? look of horror), he cannot be stopped.

And I understand. Cherries are delicious. Although the next-door tree is a bit too high up for regular harvest (given that I don't share the same fresh-from-the-ground tastes as my dog), I've been picking up helping after helping at the stores and farmers' markets. Huge yellow-red Raniers, and Bings that stain everything (myself included) with rich wine-dark juice. For the most part, I'm happy to just eat them out of hand. But recently I discovered they're delicious in salad.

I happened upon this particular combination when I was looking for something to do with purslane. This succulent green is not that common, but I've seen it show up the last several summers and highly recommend it — in addition to being a healthy omega-packed powerhouse, it's got a refreshing lemony taste and water-filled pop. I've turned it into a sort of Greek salad before, but our tomatoes were still a few weeks away. And it was too hot to try the cooked Mexican and Mediterranean preparations I've bookmarked. So instead, I tried a salad.

The recipe originally comes from The New York Times, inspired by the author's Greek vacation. I omitted the olives to keep things simple (and, um, because I didn't have any), and instead just tossed the punchy purslane with briny, creamy feta, and these drippy-sweet cherries. I dressed everything with a light touch of olive oil and lemon, and sprinkled on a bit of sumac I happened to find for another touch of sour (and color). The combination is simple, summery, well-balanced and perfect. Just ask my dog.

Purslane Salad with Cherries and Feta

adapted, heavily from The New York Times
serves ~4 as a small first course

juice of 1/2 lemon
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 clove garlic, thwacked with a knife
dollop of honey
salt and pepper to taste

1 generous bunch purslane, thick stems cut away (about 4 cups)
a few leaves fresh mint, roughly torn (I was too hot/lazy to walk out and harvest/steal these, but I think they'd make a lovely addition)
a few handfuls cherries, pitted and halved
1 to 2 ounces feta, crumbled
 a few pinches sumac (optional)

Place all of the dressing ingredients together in a jar with a leak-proof lid, and shake-shake-shake to emulsify. Taste, and adjust seasonings as needed. Set aside.

Tumble together the purslane and mint on a serving platter or individual plates. Scatter the cherries and feta on top, and scatter on a few pinches sumac (if desired). Give the dressing another shake, and lightly dress the salad. Serve.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Russian Yeasted Blini

Oh, Russian yeasted blini. Why are you so, so much better than the standard American pancake? Let me count the ways:

1. With both an overnight fermentation and a healthy helping of half-and-half, these blini manage to be both rich and tangy. I heartily approve of this combination.

2. Unlike their chain-you-to-the-griddle brethren, blini are just as delicious a few hours — or even a full day — later, which means they're easily made in advance (even, say, the night or morning before, while you can still bear to turn on the stove, allowing you a cool meal later in the hot day).

3. Although the term is often used for those chunky little silver dollar-sized canape vehicles, a true blini is the a delicate whisper size of a dinner plate, all the better to wrap up the fillings (and you can set up a full smorgasboard of fillings, letting you play around from blini to blini).

I'm sure there are a few dozen other reasons as well. But basically: blini! So, so delicious! The impetus, again, was book club. We were reading Bulgakov, so it seemed only natural I take this as an excuse for a thematic snack. So I went to the Russian market, picked up some sour cream and frighteningly cheap caviar, and set to work.

The blini themselves, as with any pancake, start out as total straight-to-the-dog failures. And you think this is a terrible recipe and why did I ever come up with this idea and oh crap book club is in a few hours and what can I bring instead? But, amazingly, by the third blini or so, it all comes together. Your pan gets hot enough, and you figure out how much you need to thin out your batter (in my case: a lot), and then you're turning out blini after blini like the best Russian babushka.

And then, once you've got a nice butter-brushed stack, you get to fill them! I put out a spread including the sour cream and caviar, and a smattering of other non-traditional-yet-delicious additions — some cubes of cold-smoked salmon belly, minced onion, fresh dill, and whole lemons chopped into tiny wedges for a bracing (and addictive) sour pop. It's perfect for book club, it's perfect for a hot summer night, and it's perfect for reminding you just how crazy good Russian food can be.

Russian Yeasted Blini

adapted from Anya von Bremzen's recipe in Food & Wine
yields ~12-14 blini (I doubled it this — it takes some time to make a double batch, but they keep and they're delicious so you might as well)

1/2 cup warm water 
1 1/8 teaspoons active dry yeast
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon sugar 
1 1/4 cups plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour 
1 1/4 cups half-and-half, at room temperature
 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled, plus several more tablespoons for brushing 
1 large egg, separated 
1 1/4 teaspoons coarse salt
neutral oil, such as grapeseed or canola, for the pan

For serving: sour cream, fresh dill fronds, chopped lemon, caviar, smoked salmon, diced onion, etc etc etc

In a small bowl, whisk the water with the yeast and 1 teaspoon of the sugar and let stand at room temperature until foamy, about 5 minutes. In a medium bowl, whisk the yeast mixture with ¼ cup of the flour until smooth. Cover and let stand in a warm place until the batter has doubled in bulk, about 1 hour. 

After the batter has risen, add the remaining 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons of flour, along with the half-and-half, 2 tablespoons of melted butter, egg yolk, salt and remaining 2 tablespoons of sugar. Whisk until smooth. Cover and refrigerate the batter overnight, stirring once or twice. 

When you're ready to fry, bring the batter to room temperature. In a medium bowl, beat the egg white until soft peaks form. Fold the beaten white into the batter just until no streaks remain. Let the batter stand for 10 minutes. If the batter is too thick, whisk in water, 1 tablespoon at a time, until you have a thinner-than-pancake-batter mixture (I needed to add A LOT more water — maybe a half cup or so for the double batch — so don't be afraid if you need it).

Meanwhile, line a plate with parchment or waxed paper. Heat an 8-inch skillet over moderate heat and lightly brush with oil. For each blini, add ~1/4 cup of batter to the skillet and quickly swirl to coat the bottom with a thin layer of batter. Cook over moderate heat until small bubbles form on the surface and the underside is golden, about 2 minutes. Flip the blini and cook for 1 minute longer. Transfer the blini to the prepared plate and brush with melted butter. Don't be dismayed if your first few blini tear apart or don't spread out in time or what-have-you — just add more water as needed, let the pan fully heat up, and all will be well.

Repeat with the remaining batter, brushing the skillet with oil as needed. You should have 12 to 14 blini. Serve at room temperature, top with whatever you desire, then roll up and enjoy.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Chocolate-Fromage Blanc Brownies

Why don't I make brownies more often? They are one-bowl easy, require no special last-minute ingredient runs, and satisfy that craving for chocolate like nothing else. When they're good — by which I mean fudgy, toothsome, and full-flavored — I want to eat them all. Oh, perhaps that's why.

This particular variation came about when I had some fromage blanc left from an over-stocked cheese plate. This fresh cheese often has a soft cream cheese-like texture, but is cultured to more of a chevre-like tang. And here, a small portion is mixed up into a sweet cheesecake-like mixture, then dolloped into a pan of brownies.

While I was smitten with the basic idea of this combination, the pictures showed a big cakey brownie, with only a bit of the cheesy topping. So I ditched the double-wide version, and went with a fudgier, slimmer brownie, a better match for the fromage. The end result is pretty much all you could want in a dessert. And as much as you could probably inhale a whole batch, just a single small square, chilled to chewiness from the refrigerator, is surprisingly satisfying.

And if you're looking for more stories of dairy, you can check out my recent story about raw milk certification (and its discontents) over at NPR. And, in full food safety disclosure, I did eat more than a few swipes of brownie batter before it made it into the oven.

Chocolate-Fromage Blanc Brownies

fromage topping and idea riffed from Sunset magazine, brownie portion halved/tweaked
yields 1 8x8-inch pan

3 ounces unsweetened chocolate, coarsely chopped
1 stick (8 tablespoons, aka 4 ounces) unsalted butter
1 1/4 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon coarse  salt 
1/2 cup all-purpose flour

Fromage Blanc Filling:
8 ounces fromage blanc
1/4 cup sugar
1 egg

Heat the oven to 325° degrees Fahrenheit. Butter and flour an 8-inch square baking dish. Set aside.

Over a double boiler (or in short, well-watched bursts in the microwave), melt the chopped chocolate and butter. When just about melted, remove from heat, and let melt fully in the residual heat (and let cool slightly). Whisk in the sugar, further cooling things down, then the eggs, vanilla, and salt. Blend until smooth, then, with a spoon or spatula, gently/barely stir in the flour.

In a small bowl, whisk together the fromage blanc, 1/4 cup sugar, and egg until smooth. Note that fromage blancs vary: if yours is smooth, this may be simple, but if yours is firmer, you may need to whisk more aggressively or pass through a strainer to yield a smooth mixture.

Spread 2/3 the brownie batter evenly over the prepared pan, then pour the fromage blanc mixture over that. Dollop the remaining brownie batter across the top, and gently smooth to partially (not completely) cover the fromage blanc mixture (a few swirls are nice).

Bake for 25-30 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center of the brownies comes out with just a moist crumbs. As with all brownies, under-baking is better than over-baking. Over-baking is sad. Place the pan on a rack to cool completely, then cut into squares (I favor small squares — 5x5). Chill if desired (and, since we've got dairy, best to refrigerate leftovers). Enjoy.
1 stick (113 grams) unsalted butter
2 ounces (55 grams) unsweetened chocolate, coarsely chopped
1 cup minus 2 tablespoons (175 grams) granulated sugar
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ cup (35 grams) all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon fine sea salt

Heat the oven to 325 degrees. Lightly butter an 8-inch square baking dish and line the bottom with a rectangle of parchment paper long enough to hang a couple of inches over two of the sides. (You’ll use the parchment to lift the brownies from the pan.) Lightly butter the paper.

Melt the butter and chopped chocolate in a 2½-3 quart saucepan over low heat, stirring occasionally. Remove the pan from the heat. Stir in the sugar, then add the eggs and vanilla and blend until smooth. Stir in the flour and the salt. Pour into the prepared pan, then lift the pan and drop it down onto the countertop a couple of times to release any air bubbles.

Bake for 25-30 minutes (in my oven, they’re done at 28), until a toothpick inserted into the center of the brownies comes out clean. Cool completely in the pan on a wire rack, run a sharp knife around the edges between the brownies and the pan, then refrigerate for at least 30 minutes. Pull the parchment paper to lift the brownies from the pan. Slice into 16 squares.  - See more at: http://www.sweetamandine.com/#sthash.7Ba96V8R.dpuf
1 stick (113 grams) unsalted butter
2 ounces (55 grams) unsweetened chocolate, coarsely chopped
1 cup minus 2 tablespoons (175 grams) granulated sugar
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ cup (35 grams) all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon fine sea salt

Heat the oven to 325 degrees. Lightly butter an 8-inch square baking dish and line the bottom with a rectangle of parchment paper long enough to hang a couple of inches over two of the sides. (You’ll use the parchment to lift the brownies from the pan.) Lightly butter the paper.

Melt the butter and chopped chocolate in a 2½-3 quart saucepan over low heat, stirring occasionally. Remove the pan from the heat. Stir in the sugar, then add the eggs and vanilla and blend until smooth. Stir in the flour and the salt. Pour into the prepared pan, then lift the pan and drop it down onto the countertop a couple of times to release any air bubbles.

Bake for 25-30 minutes (in my oven, they’re done at 28), until a toothpick inserted into the center of the brownies comes out clean. Cool completely in the pan on a wire rack, run a sharp knife around the edges between the brownies and the pan, then refrigerate for at least 30 minutes. Pull the parchment paper to lift the brownies from the pan. Slice into 16 squares.  - See more at: http://www.sweetamandine.com/#sthash.7Ba96V8R.dpuf