Sunday, January 27, 2008

In a Citrus Frenzy: An Homage to June Taylor

Yep, you guessed it. This is another crazy midwinter canning post! I was reading the GardenWeb's Harvest Forum recently, and I came across a mention of Honeybell Marmalade. What's a honeybell, I wondered? Apparently, it's a super-sweet, super-juicy tangelo (tangerine x grapefruit cross) with a very short season, basically only during the month of January. So intrigued was I that I quickly ordered up two dozen honeybells to be sent from Cushman's in Florida...pronto! I was feeling quite smug and pleased with myself on my acquisition of this citrus marvel, until I was bragging to my friend June about my order, and she asked, "Oh, are they like mineolas?" I told her yes, that according to my extensive internet reading to figure out what in the world I had just ordered, they are close cousins, crossed with the same tangerine (Darcy) but different varieties of grapefruit (Duncan for the honeybell, Bowen for the mineola). And she replied, "Oh, I love those! You can get them at Hannaford!" Hannaford is one of our regional grocery chains, and I should have known to check there first, as they were the ones that had my nearly-impossible-to-find quinces in the fall. Drat! Oh well. No harm done. I still look forward to the arrival of my Cushman honeybells.

In the meantime, I stopped by Hannaford to see if they had any other interesting fruit for me, and sure enough, they had a beautiful crop of Moro blood oranges, also known as raspberry oranges for their deep, dark flesh and hint of berry taste. They were so beautiful and fragrant with rinds that looked like a sunset, and since I need to practice my marmalading skills before the honeybells arrive, I bought a dozen, naively trusting that I would be able find a good recipe for blood orange marmalade when I got home. Easier said than done! I have done an exhaustive search of the internet, the cookbooks on my shelves, and even a few on Amazon, and came up with very few marmalade recipes that deal specifically with blood oranges. Traditionally, marmalade is made with Seville oranges, which are quite sour. So following a traditional orange marmalade recipe would, I theorized, yield a product that would be too sweet. What to do, what to do?

When looking for jam-making inspiration, I idolize two women in particular: Christine Ferber of France and June Taylor in the Bay Area. Unfortunately, I could not consult Ms. Ferber, as I do not have her book, Mes Confitures: The Jams and Jellies of Christine Ferber. Mind you, I have given it twice as a gift, but procrastinated too long to order one for myself, and now it's out of print! BOO! Used copies on Ebay and Amazon and the like are going for between $80 and $160 (three to six times its regular price)! So until the good people of Michigan State University Press get around to printing some more, I'm out of luck there. :-( Now June Taylor doesn't have a cookbook (more's the pity!), but she does have a video interview on Chowhound where she's shown making and talking about...blood orange marmalade! I thought I had hit pay dirt until I realized that Ms. Taylor had not offered up a specific recipe for the marmalade, just the technique. It was a start, anyway. And I did find three of her marmalade recipes online (grapefruit and Meyer lemon, thick-cut orange, and tangerine and grapefruit), along with a lengthy New York Times Magazine article which yielded further clues. I then consulted my trusty Ball Blue Book and also considered the approaches of every other blood orange marmalade recipe that could be found, and I think I have managed to develop a method in the style of June Taylor that worked perfectly for the blood orange marmalade and will, I believe, also compliment the Cushman honeybells when they are delivered. Here we go...and be advised, no one said marmalade was going to be easy, or quick. Indeed, most methods advocate a two, if not three-day process!

The first day, I prepared the fruit, breaking down the dozen blood oranges. If you can find organic blood oranges where you live, knock yourself out. But in my tiny 'burgh, it's Sunkist from California or nothing. So first, I scrubbed the fruit under very warm water to remove the stickers, the wax, and any pesticide residue. Then, following the technique of Ms. Taylor, I spent every bit of three hours cutting up all of those oranges. First, you cut off the top and bottom of each piece until you can see the flesh. Then you supreme the fruit (cutting out the segments between the tough membranes--this is what takes forever), leaving the peel on, then slicing each segment into thin little squares, reserving the discarded bits to be cooked in a jelly bag later. I added the little orange pieces to a large, heavy-bottomed pot along with the juice of two lemons (reserving the seeds and rinds for the jelly bag), and added water to cover, then submerged the jelly bag (I tied everything up into one of my flour sack towels). I brought the mixture to a boil and simmered it for five minutes, then covered the pot and let it sit overnight. If your house isn't as cold as mine, you might want to refrigerate it to be safe. June Taylor does not do this step, but nearly every other marmalade recipe that I consulted recommends soaking the fruit overnight--with or without a brief initial cooking. I have no idea what this is for. My guess is that it helps to soften the citrus peels in stages rather than cooking it in one long session and risk scorching it. Maybe the water also helps leech out some of the bitterness? Who knows? But since it was very late when I came to the end of the eternal fruit-cutting part of the program, I decided to employ the common let-it-soak method. Some recipes just say overnight (which I take to mean eight hours), another said 12-18 hours, and many said 24 hours.

The next day, I brought the pot back to a boil (uncovered) for the next stage of cooking, to soften the peel fully, evaporate some of the water, and render the natural pectin out of the fruit and reserved bits in the jelly bag. This takes 20-30 minutes. After that, many recipes recommend letting the mixture cool, and refrigerating it for up to another 24 hours! But since it's Sunday, and I had to get my marmalade on today before returning to work tomorrow, I opted to just keep going. I removed the jelly bag, and after it was cool enough to touch, I kneaded and squeezed between a third and a half a cup of pectin out of the bag (as demonstrated in the June Taylor video). Unfortunately, in doing so, I destroyed my flour sack towel which simply could not withstand the abuse. So next time, I will seek out muslin bags or perhaps try 4-6 layers of cheesecloth instead. In any case, I mixed the pectin that I rendered from the jelly bag back into the pot of fruit and then measured the whole business. I had just over two quarts (eight cups) of fruit and thickened juice. Now, here was my biggest dilemma. Almost every marmalade recipe on the face of the earth calls for a one-to-one ratio of fruit to sugar. But Ms. Taylor is famous for making conserves with as little as 20% sugar, and still just 50-60% sugar for marmalades (so sayeth the New York Times article). So for eight cups of fruit, that would mean only five cups of sugar at most, as opposed to the more typical eight cups. I was worried that, without enough sugar, perhaps it would be hard to get the preserve to set properly. Plus, I suspect that Ms. Taylor, being a Brit, enjoys a more bitter marmalade than I would with my wussy American palate. So I started with five cups, but when I tasted it, it was indeed too bitter to my taste. So I decided to up the sugar to six cups for a 75% ratio of sugar to fruit. I gave some to Cyd to try, as she tends to like things less sweet, and she thought it was perfect. I'm still undecided. If I was making it just for myself, I still might opt for the classic one-to-one proportion. However, with all of that rendered pectin from the jelly bag, I needn't have worried about the set, even when reducing the sugar.

Once you get it as sweet as you want it, it's time for the final "cooking off" stage. You will want to bring the pot rapidly to a roiling boil, and let it go like gangbusters for 25-40 minutes until it reaches the set point. How will you know? Well, there are a few ways to check. The surest way is with a candy thermometer (it should reach 221 or 222 when it's ready). You can also put a dollop on a chilled plate and see if it mounds up a bit ("like a fresh egg" says June Taylor) and if it forms a skin after a minute or two (it will crinkle when you drag your finger through it). You're going to hate me for saying it, but mostly, it's just instinct. It's the way it looks and feels that tells you it's done, and you get to know what you're looking for once you've made a lot of jam. For the novice, I would suggest erring on the side of it being too loose than overcooked. After all, the marmalade will still taste great even if it's a little runny on your toast, and it'll firm up in the fridge anyway. Ms. Taylor says that marmalade has a very short window--just five minutes between set and overdone. And if you misjudge it and end up caramelizing the sugar, both the color and flavor of the fruit will go off irreparably, and then all that work will be for nothing. So be careful, and keep a close eye on the marmalade toward the end of the cooking.

When your marmalade has reached the set point, you should remove it from the heat, skim any excess foam, and pour immediately into hot, sterilized jars (I got nine half-pints). Ms. Taylor would call herself done at this point, letting the jars seal themselves in the venerable open-kettle method that your grandma used. Though grandmas rarely kill anyone with their jams and jellies made this way, I'm a safety girl (name the movie), so I went ahead and processed the preserves in a boiling water bath for ten minutes. Finally, 85 years later, I had nine lovely jars of blood orange marmalade, bringing a little sunshine (more like a lovely sunset!) into these dark, wintry months. I believe June Taylor would be very proud.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Back to the deep freeze...

So much for that teaser 40-50 degree weather. We're back to hardcore winter in these parts. In fact, I was foolish enough to try and start a load of laundry a couple of days ago, but the drain pipe froze, and I couldn't finish it until today when it got back into the balmy 20's. (And not a moment too soon, as I was down to that last desperate pair of clean underpants--you know the ones--threadbare, ripped, hanging on by one overworked strand of elastic.) Also, as of Thursday, school is back in full swing, and I have hit the ground running as I do every semester. So these frigid and busy times mandate meals that are not too fussy to make and that stick to your ribs. Nothing fancy, just hearty fare to warm your cockels. Do girls even have cockels? Well, even if we don't, we can still be comforted by a pot of fabulous chili and a homemade cinnamon loaf for dessert.

When I make chili, I usually just throw a bunch of stuff into the pot until it looks and tastes right. But this time, I consulted the International Chili Society's website and perused many of the World Champion Chili Cook-Off recipes, gleaning excellent tips that I used to fashion what I feel is the best pot of chili that I have ever made. The only thing that would have taken it over the top would be if I had used tri-tip beef roast instead of regular ground beef. I'll definitely try that next time. But it was still marvelous as it was--rich, flavorful, and both sweet and hot, just like I like it! To make it easy and to give it that slow-cooked flavor, I simmered it in the crock pot all day, only adding canned beans to the mix about an hour before eating. Here is the recipe for you to try, but also to remind myself what I did this time so I can replicate it in the future.

World-Class(y) Sassy Chili

1 pound ground beef
1 large onion, diced
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon cayenne
1/2 black pepper
1/2 cup (up to 10 tablespoons) dark chili powder
salt to taste
1 small can chopped green chilis (don't drain them)
1 large can crushed tomatoes
3 tablespoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon Tabasco (or to taste)
1 cup chicken broth
1 cup beef broth
juice of one lime (1-2 tablespoons)
2 cans dark red kidney beans (or light red kidneys or chili beans or what have you), drained

Brown the hamburger with the onion and garlic. When just browned, drain off the excess fat, then mix in all of the dried herbs and spices. Add the meat mixture to a crock pot, then the chilis in their juice, the tomatoes, brown sugar, Tabasco, and the broths. Stir together and taste to correct the heat and seasoning. Cook on low all day (6-8 hours or however long you're at work/away from the house). A half hour to an hour before serving, add the lime juice and the beans. Garnish with a handful of shredded cheddar cheese and a smattering of chopped onions. To make a more substantial meal, serve it over spaghetti (Cincinatti-style).

For dessert, I suggest something simple but satisfying. I found a recipe for a fine cinnamon swirl loaf in one of my holiday baking magazines that just fit the bill. It really is a quick bread--doesn't take any more time than a boxed cake mix, but it's infinitely homier. And who doesn't love streusel? No one, that's who! Even if you're not a seasoned baker, you should try making this. It's easy and darn tasty. And I think it looks fairly impressive; even though I over-swirled my marble, it still came out pretty. Try toasting a thick slice of it the following day--divine!

Cinnamon-Swirl Bread
(Source: Christmas Baking, BHG 2007)

1/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup finely chopped pecans or walnuts, toasted
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 cup sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 egg
1 cup milk
1/3 cup cooking oil

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour the bottom and sides of a 9x5x3 loaf pan. Combine 1/3 cup of sugar, nuts, and cinnamon. Set aside.

Combine 1 cup of sugar, flour, baking powder, and salt. In a separate bowl, beat egg. Then, stir in milk and oil. Make a well in the flour mixture and add the egg mixture. Stir just until mixed. Do not overmix.

Pour half of the batter into loaf pan. Sprinkle with half of the cinnamon mixture. Repeat. With a wide rubber scraper or spatula, swirl mixtures together with a down and up circular motion.

Bake for 45 to 50 minutes or until done (mine took an hour!). Cool in pan for about 10 minutes. Then, cool completely on a wire rack.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Another Two-Week Project: Pickling Eggs

Back in October, I was invited to a friend's cabin out in the woods for some autumnal hiking and the last of the leaf-peeping before she closed the place down for the season. Everyone who came brought something to share, either a stand-alone potluck dish, or an ingredient for a cauldron of "stone soup." I think I brought several kinds of beans for the soup and a loaf of Aunt Elva's Banana Bread, if memory serves...and it doesn't always anymore! Regardless, the food was all yummy, especially eaten in front of the wood stove on a chilly but beautiful fall day. One of the foods on the buffet made by the hostess herself was a platter of strikingly-colored pickled eggs. Having only ever seen them in a big jar on bar counters or convenience stores (the hygiene issue and lack of refrigeration were always psychological barriers to my sampling them), I was intrigued. And they were gloriously magenta-hued from being pickled with beet juice. I had to try one! However, to me, the vinegar taste was much too strong (which is saying something, as I love vinegary things and everything pickled). But I liked the idea of the pickled egg, so I tucked that thought in the back of my mind for future research.

Flash forward to winter break. Now I have time to work on pickling some eggs. To begin, I found an interesting website where a scientist named Stan Woods compiled the results of his many egg-pickling experiments. I chose one recipe that he deemed his favorite to date to riff on. One of the main tips that I gleaned from his ground-breaking ovarian work was that the eggs can be pickled just as well in vinegar that has been diluted by half with water as those made in straight vinegar (which results in rubbery eggs with a too-acidic flavor). And the other big change I wanted to make was to not use beet juice. It makes the most beautifully-colored eggs, but I just don't care for the taste of beets beyond the bowl of authentic borscht in Montreal or the wonderful chlodnick that my precious Johnny makes (from the New York Times Cookbook by Craig Claiborne). So I wanted fabulous color, but using something other than beets. Thus, I was drawn to Stan Wood's recipe calling for balsamic vinegar. He reported that his eggs took on great color from the balsamic, and I love its flavor, too. So that was my starting point.

Pickling eggs is a surprisingly easy enterprise; it just takes patience--patience to peel 18 eggs and patience to wait two weeks for them to cure before you eat them up! First, I took a clean, half-gallon-sized wide mouth jar (I had several knocking around up in the attic, but I have seen them for purchase at Michael's, too) and layered in a dozen and a half hard-cooked eggs along with garlic cloves and onion slices. Then I made the brine, brought it to a boil, and poured it all over the contents of the jar. I closed it up and "parked it in the chill chest" (name that cook for a bonus point!) for two weeks. The results? Good news and bad news. On the positive side, they were a gorgeous purple-brown color, and they weren't as overbearingly sharp-tasting as the ones I had sampled previously. However, as much as I love all pickles, and these were very good, I just think I prefer my eggs unpickled--devilled certainly, but not pickled--at least not to eat straight up. What I did find is that the pickled eggs were absolutely DELICIOUS when cut up and added to a dinner salad*. Our favorite way to enjoy them is with a chef's salad type of affair: turkey, ham, shredded cheese, pickled eggs, fried onions (instead of croutons), and Thousand Island dressing. Not low-cal by any means, but SO GOOD! The pickled eggs gives the salad a great zip and cuts through the richness of the other ingredients. In any case, here is my recipe if you'd like to try them for yourself:

Balsamic Pickled Eggs

18 hard-cooked large eggs, peeled
1/2 onion, sliced
4 cloves garlic, peeled and cracked
1 3/4 cups cider vinegar
1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
1 1/2 cups water
2 tablespoons canning salt
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon jalapeno (nacho) slices, chopped
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
a dozen or so whole peppercorns

Layer the eggs with the onion slices and garlic cloves in a large (half-gallon sized) jar. Combine the remaining ingredients and bring to a boil, then pour the brine over the eggs, close the jar, and refrigerate. Give the eggs two weeks to pickle to maximize their flavor before eating. Store in the refrigerator!

*Follow-up: I found another excellent use for the pickled eggs. I cut them up and put them into potato salad, and instead of regular pickle relish, I used my special zucchini relish. Mmm, mmm! The best potato salad I've ever made!

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

"He ain't dead..."

"...he's gonna wake up in thirty minutes, hungry enough to eat up everything in your house!" (Ok, you know the game by now. Name the reference if you can! We'll return to the quote later once you ponder it for a little bit.)

So...I was thinking to myself, it's a new year. I should turn over a new leaf and be more prompt about household drudgeries. You know, stuff like changing the sheets more often and cleaning out the fridge. (I knew the latter was getting to be a problem because we had run out of Tupperware-type containers...that's always the tip-off.) I set about my task with great purpose, and I actually enjoyed doing it. I think I'm just generally in a good mood because the days are getting longer (I was out cleaning the chicken coop until 4:30 the other day before losing the light...whoo-hoo!) and global warming has brought us from 12 below around New Year's to 50-some-odd degrees less than a week later! Yesterday, my neighbor and I cruised up to the butcher in Hemmingford, QC and along the way, we actually saw a woman in shorts washing her front windows! Spring cleaning in Canada on January 8th! SO BIZARRE!

Anyhoo, as I cleaned out the fridge, I came across my beloved sourdough crock, and I'm ashamed to tell you that it had been pushed to the back and forgotten for I don't even know how many months. I took it out and inspected it. It had as much "hooch" on top as batter below (if you could call the solid lump of dried-out starter a "batter"), and it smelled VERY, VERY, VERY SOUR. I bought this starter from King Arthur some 7-8 years ago, and though they recommend that you feed it at least every two weeks, I often push it to monthly feedings without a problem. But this had been a few-to-several months by now, and it looked and smelled funnnnn-ky. Still, my experience is that sourdough is darn near impossible to kill, unless you overheat it, so I thought I'd try to perform a resuscitatation before performing the last rites.

First, I poured off the powerful hooch, and sort of washed the chunk-o-batter with running water. Once I had diluted it to a consistency between heavy cream and a thick pancake batter, I scooped out a cup, poured it into a ceramic bowl, added another cup of flour and some water, and a pinch of sugar to give a quick meal to my languishing yeasties. It still smelled horribly strong, but I stuck it in my homemade proof box and went about my business. After about 12 hours, it still didn't look like much, maybe a freckling of teeny bubbles only, but I soldiered on in good faith. I reserved a cup, tossed the rest, added more flour and water to make a batter along with a pinch of ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) to make my well water more acidic and therefore hospitable to sourdough, then put it back in the proofer. The next day, it looked perhaps a wee bit frothier, so I fed it again. And lo and behold, LOOK what happened after that! IT...IS....ALIVE!! (Or to paraphrase my new favorite comedian, Katt Williams: He's not dead. He's just asleep right now but he's going to wake up hungry.)

So I kept feeding it for another day or two, then decided to take it for a test drive and bake bread. I found a recipe for oatmeal loaves that some helpful wag had converted to make with sourdough starter. It sounded delicious, so I went ahead and mixed the dough. The recipe said that the initial rise time would probably be about four hours (sourdough takes much longer to ferment than commercial yeast, as I'm sure you know), but at four hours, mine looked pretty much the same as when I started. I almost threw the dough away at that point, but then I decided that no harm would come from waiting it out, and I also remembered that sourdough can take 12 hours or more to rise. So I chucked it back in the proofer and waited. And waited. And waited some more. And I'll be danged if, at EIGHT hours, that dough didn't look (and smell) gorgeous! The dough was billowy and filled my whole big bread bowl to the top. Success! I punched it down (gently), formed two loaves, and stuck the pans back in the proofer. I wasn't sure if the starter would have enough "oomph" left in it for the final rise, but FOUR hours later, the loaves were beautifully doubled, so in the oven they went. 40 minutes later, I had some of the most delicious bread that I have ever made! (That long, slow rise really develops flavor.) The texture was nice and soft, largely thanks to the oatmeal, and it wasn't too sour-tasting as I had feared it might be from the neglected starter. Moreover, it made the most remarkable toast! :-)

Since the bread took that long to rise, I figured that the starter still needed to be strengthened. So I fed it for another couple of days before returning it to the fridge where I vow (as so many abusers do) not to treat it so terribly again! However, as insurance, it's always a good idea to have a couple of emergency back-up starters in case you really do manage to kill off your main one. You can separate them in different containers and keep them all in the fridge if you bake often, but for longer, safer storage, here's what you should do. Instead of chucking out that cup of starter when you feed it, pour it out in a very thin layer on waxed paper spread out on a large baking sheet. Then set the pan aside for a couple/few days until the starter is completely dry and brittle. (If it gets moldy, throw it out and try again--you didn't spread it thinly enough.) Then take it off the wax paper, crumble it up into little plastic storage bags, and then stick the baggies of starter in the freezer for safe keeping. If you need some, take one baggie out, grind the starter until powdery in the food processor, and then rehydrate it. You may need to feed it for a few days until it comes back to full strength, but it will absolutely come back. Also, dried starter is convenient to share with friends and family who live far from you; it's lightweight and easily sent through the mails. Isn't that a handy tip? I thought so.

Therefore, if your New Year's resolution involves attempting to bake with sourdough, I suggest this as an excellent beginning recipe. And if you need some starter to get started, I have another great idea for you. There was a man in my home state of Oregon named Carl Griffith who had been baking sourdough since he was a child (on the Oregon Trail, in a Dutch oven no less!) from a 150-year-old starter that had been in his pioneering family for generations. He was so passionate about sourdough baking and had such a generous spirit, that he used to mail out dried starter for free to anyone who requested it. Carl passed away in 2000, but the Friends of Carl (not to be confused with an AA group) still carry on his legacy to this day. If you send them a self-addressed, stamped ($.90) envelope, they will send you some of Carl's historic 1847 Oregon Trail sourdough for free! You heard me--FREE--well, except for the cost of postage. Or if you prefer, you can send them a dollar, and they will mail the starter to you. Is that great or what? His website is also where I got the oatmeal sourdough recipe that follows. Do try it. You will be so pleased that you did. Oh, and if any of my local readers want some sourdough starter, just ask. I would be more than happy to share. That's what Carl would want me to do! :-)

Oatmeal Sourdough Bread
(Source: Carl's Friends)
Makes two loaves

1 cup quick oats
1/2 cup whole wheat flour (I used graham flour)
1/2 cup brown sugar (I might try swapping this out for Grade B maple syrup next time)
1 tablespoon salt (sounds like a lot, but it isn't)
2 tablespoons butter
2 1/2 cups boiling water
1 cup sourdough starter
5 cups white bread flour (I used AP this time)

Combine in a large bowl the oats, whole wheat flour, brown sugar, salt, and butter. Pour boiling water over mixture. Stir to combine. When batter is cooled to lukewarm, add the starter and stir in the flour. When the dough is stiff enough to handle, turn onto floured board and knead for 5 to 10 minutes (I did this for five minutes in my stand mixer). Place in a greased bowl, cover and let rise until doubled (4-8 hours). Punch down and separate into 2 equal balls. Shape into loaves and place in greased 9 X 5 X 3 inch pans. Let rise until doubled again (2-4 hours). Bake for 30 to 40 minutes at 350 F. Cool on rack, brushing loaves with butter for a soft crust.

Notes: This recipe makes beautiful soft dough that bakes into great pan bread or it can be made into very tasty dinner rolls. Take the words "punch down" with a grain of salt. Be gentle with this dough. The more air you work out of the dough when forming the loaves, the longer it will take to recover volume in the second rise.

Be sure to allow enough time for the batter to cool to lukewarm before adding the sourdough starter. It took two hours or more when tested. Taste testers disagreed on the amount of salt, some preferred a little less; others liked the taste with the full tablespoon.

Ovens vary. Baking can take up to 50 minutes. You may also want to remove the bread from the pans for the last ten minutes of baking to brown the bottom half of the loaves. (I didn't, and they browned just fine.)

Treat yourself to real butter in the dough. This bread is worth it. Also butter the pans, you will be rewarded with an amazing butterscotch smell when the butter toasts the brown sugar sweetened dough while baking.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Very belated birthday treat....

My limoncello post became so unwieldy that I didn't get a chance to discuss our special New Year's dessert. You see, I made Cyd a gorgeous birthday cake last month--she requested our very favorite Chocolate Velvet Cake with Butter Pecan Icing--but it turned out wrong. I accidentally added baking powder instead of baking soda and ended up with something more akin to a dense flourless torte than a lighter-than-air cloud cake. It was still good, but it just wasn't what I was trying to make. So I apologized for the mistake and promised Cyd that I would make another dessert of her choosing when I had time. It took me about a month to make good on that promise, but THIS is what she wanted, and tell me that it wasn't worth waiting for:

Doesn't it make you just want to crawl through the screen? I thought so. These are the most wonderful chocolate frosted éclairs in the whole world, and I've been making them since I first ran across the recipe in a magazine more than five years ago. (I could have sworn it was Gourmet, but an exhaustive and ridiculously time-consuming search of my old magazines revealed that it was, in fact, Food and Wine). I suppose there are comparable or better pâte à choux recipes out there, and the "frosting" is just chocolate and butter. But what makes this éclair truly spectacular is the pastry cream. It is PERFECT. It is absolutely delicious--rich, not too sweet, redolent of vanilla beans, and they make it look pretty, too! Plus, the recipe makes just the right amount to be generous when filling a dozen small eclairs--and who wants a skimpy éclair? No one!

Seriously, if you take nothing else from this post, bookmark the pastry cream and use it wherever warranted (my other favorite use for it is in a fresh fruit tart with a cookie crust). But I really think you should try making the éclairs. They look very complicated, like an advanced pastry skill, but they truly aren't. I cajoled Cyd into helping me, and we had a batch thrown together in no time, and Cyd declared that they were easy enough that she could make them herself (not that she would ever be so inclined, mind you)! You can even make the pâte à choux shells and the pastry cream a day ahead, and then frost and assemble the éclairs the next day. Actually, I would suggest this in any case--make the elements but don't put them together until right before serving. YUM!

Chocolate-Frosted Éclairs
Food and Wine, June 2002)
Makes one dozen éclairs

Choux Pastry:
1 cup water
1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter
2 tablespoons sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
4 large eggs

Pastry Cream:
2 cups whole milk
1/4 vanilla bean, seeds scraped (I use a whole one!)
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
5 tablespoons cake flour
pinch of salt
1 large egg
2 large egg yolks
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons heavy cream

Chocolate Glaze:
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

Make the choux pastry:
Preheat the oven to 400°. In a medium saucepan, bring the water, butter, sugar and salt to a boil over moderate heat. Remove the pan from the heat. Add the flour and stir vigorously with a wooden spoon for about 2 minutes, until the dough comes together and a film forms on the bottom of the pan. Transfer the dough to a large bowl and beat at medium speed until slightly cooled, about 1 minute. Add the eggs, 1 at a time, beating well after each addition.

Transfer the dough to a pastry bag fitted with a 1-inch round tip. Pipe twelve 5-inch-long logs onto a baking sheet and bake for 10 minutes. Turn the oven down to 325° and bake the shells for 30 minutes longer, or until golden brown. Transfer to a rack and let cool.

Make the pastry cream:
In a medium saucepan, bring the milk, vanilla bean and seeds just to a boil. Meanwhile, in a large bowl, whisk the sugar with the cake flour and salt. Whisk in the egg and egg yolks. Slowly add the hot milk, whisking constantly. Pour the mixture back into the saucepan and bring to a boil over moderate heat, whisking constantly. Continue to boil the pastry cream, whisking constantly, until thick, about 30 seconds longer. Immediately strain the pastry cream through a fine sieve into a medium bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes, or until cool. (It's much faster if you use an ice bath...FYI.)

In a medium bowl, whip the heavy cream until soft peaks form. Whisk the pastry cream, then fold in the whipped cream until blended.

Make the chocolate glaze:
In a medium bowl, melt the chocolate in a microwave oven. Whisk in the butter until smooth.

With a serrated knife, split the éclair shells lengthwise. Spoon a generous amount of the pastry cream into the bottom half of each shell. Dip the top half of each shell into the chocolate glaze, close the éclairs and serve.

Make ahead:

The components can be made early in the day, but assemble the éclairs shortly before serving.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

HAPPY 2008!

HAPPY NEW YEAR , everyone! (Well, except to those in the Pacific time still have another 45 minutes or so to wait it out.) I suppose many of you are out whooping it up at big parties tonight? We had given some thought to hitting First Night Burlington across the lake in Vermont, but new snow on the ground today caused us to think better of it. Oh, who am I kidding? We're old and tired now and just as happy to stay home! At least we didn't fall asleep before the ball dropped the way my mom used to do. And we even had hats and horns! Red ones!

Other than the party attire, the rest of our New Year's celebration was pretty mellow. It was steak night for dinner, and we watched another great movie, Eastern Promises. (Though I warn you not to eat and watch it at the same's engaging but grisly.) However, the real star of the evening was our fabulous pre-dinner cocktail. Now everyone who knows me knows that I am not a drinker. I will have a semi-annual margarita at each of two Faculty Association events a year, but that's about it. However, I have discovered another cocktail that I just love: the Lemon Drop Martini. It's called a Lemon Drop after the famous sour candy, and the resulting beverage tastes rather like grown-up lemonade but with a powerful punch! I had my first one at a restaurant called The Blackfish Cafe in Lincoln City on the central Oregon coast a couple of years ago while visiting my dear friend, John. But it doesn't seem to be as popular in the East for some reason, or maybe it's just a bit too foofy of a drink up here in the rural North Country? In any case, I decided to make my own, and my (lemony) twist on it is to make the drink with limoncello...HOMEMADE limoncello at that! You see, the problem with some Lemon Drops is that they involve sugar, and even superfine sugar (shaken not stirred!) is difficult to get to dissolve all the way, so you can end up with a grainy cocktail. And who wants that?

So, inspired by a lengthy thread on eGullet, I made my first attempt at a homemade liqueur, limoncello. It was surprisingly easy to make, requiring no real skill, only patience. To begin, you will need a large glass jar with a well-fitting lid for infusing the liquor with lemony goodness. You then zest a dozen bright-skinned lemons and one lime; the lime helps mimic the tarter Sorrento lemons of the Almalfi Coast of Italy, where this drink originated. (If you buy non-organic lemons, make sure to scrub them with a vegetable brush under hot running water to remove the wax and any residue from pesticides.) Ideally, you'll use a Microplane to get the finest shreds which makes more surface area for a better infusion. But I got bored after the first lemon and decided to use a regular vegetable peeler (taking care to press lightly and only remove the yellow skin and no bitter, white pith), and then I ground up the peels in my food processor. Worked like a charm! You add the zest to the glass jar and pour in one 750ml bottle of either Everclear or 100-proof vodka. The stronger spirits extract the lemon flavor more quickly and thoroughly, but may impart a harsh taste and burn to your final product. 100-proof vodka does just as well, though it may take some extra time for the infusion, but your finished liqueur should taste smoother. I went for option B, as I'm on vacay and have nothing but time on my hands. Store the jar in a cool dark place for at least ten days, preferably two weeks, and a month would be even better. Give it a shake every other day or so, and you'll know it's done with the lemon bits are whitish and brittle, and the vodka is a bright yellow.

When you feel like the vodka is no longer taking on additional color or aroma, strain out the zest (I used a mesh strainer lined with a paper coffee filter--that took roughly forever, but it made for a very clear result), and dilute with simple syrup. To make the simple syrup, mix three cups of water with three cups of sugar and bring to a boil. Remove from the heat and cool completely (adding warm simple syrup to your infusion will make it cloudy). Start with three cups of the simple syrup, and reserve one more in case you decide you need it later after tasting your concoction. Lastly, to the lemon-infused vodka and simple syrup, you will add one more 750ml bottle of regular 80-proof vodka. TA-DAH: homemade limoncello! You can drink this immediately (though freezing it first until lusciously viscous is both traditional and highly desirable), but I recommend letting the stuff stay in the jar for a few more days to a week to mellow a bit before sampling and bottling decoratively.

When you are satisfied with how your limoncello tastes, you may drink it straight like a cordial, or top off your iced tea with it, or make a fabulous martini like we did. I did a quick internet search for lemon cocktails made with limoncello, and I found the perfect recipe from, of all people, Sandra Lee. (The woman makes a lot of fake food, but always with a smart cocktail in her hand!) She called it the Lemon Cream Martini, and it was just what I had in mind, so I went off of that. In a shaker, you mix two ounces of vanilla vodka (we used Smirnoff), one ounce of limoncello, and crushed ice. Now Cyd and I debated about the vodka proportions. It was delicious as it was, but we liked it even better when we flipped it to two ounces of limoncello and one ounce of the vanilla vodka. Your call there. In any case, pour the icy mixture into martini glasses rimmed with sugar (preferably, vanilla sugar!), and top off with 7-Up/Sprite/Sierra Mist. I love the fizz of the soda (which is also how The Blackfish Cafe made theirs), and if you're a wimp like me, you can always use a larger proportion of soda than just a splash. If it were summer, I would do as Sandra Lee does and garnish with a few fresh blueberries. But I chose to use a couple of lemon peels this time. DELISH! But I warn you, be careful! It is almost too easy to drink and packs a real wallop! As I said, I rarely drink, and I had just ONE martini that was really more Sierra Mist than anything, and within a few minutes, I felt my cheeks burning, I started giggling uncontrollably, and Cyd said I "looked like a damn drunk!" Of course, I hadn't eaten all day, except for another Peppermint Mocha Frappucino at Starbucks. ;-) But remember, limoncello is the stuff that made Danny DeVito all loopy before he went on "The View" about a year ago. Imbiber, beware! But as long as you're in your own home on your own couch watching Seacrest and Dick Clark, what harm? It will certainly make for a very HAPPY Happy New Year! (Tee hee.)

P.S. Cyd said that I should send this shot into Absolut to use in their advertising. (Loving my new camera!) However, though the glass says Absolut, I used a new Polish vodka in the limoncello that I would HIGHLY recommend. It's called Sobieski, and it won both a gold medal and a best buy award at the prestigious International Review of Spirits Competition. It also earned a rating of 95 out of 100 (exceptional) and has been declared "an incredible value in a world of high-priced vodkas." I'm not sure if they declared that themselves, but I must concur. As super-premium vodkas have become astronomically priced, I was thrilled to find the Sobieski on sale for about nine bucks at my local Liquor and Wine Warehouse! Not bad for a vodka that is imminently sippable on its own, with "clear, spicy aromas of star anise, cream, minerals and powdered sugar follow[ing] through to a round, silky entry and a smooth off-dry medium-to-full body with a long, lingering whipped cream, spice, rye dough, and sweet citrus fade with virtually no heat. Great subtle, pure, and spicy rye flavors with a lively texture and superb smoothness." (The Beverage Tasting Institute) Check it out.