Saturday, June 26, 2010

Apricot Tart with Almonds

When I was 17, I went to France for the first time to be an au-pair for the summer. About a month into my stay, the family's grandfather came to visit and died suddenly during the night. The family went into mourning, the kids were a wreck and the teary-eyed mother asked me if I wanted to leave. I high-tailed it out of there. I caught a series of trains and buses winding across the border and down the coast. 24 hours later, after one missed train and a few futile phone calls home, I found my way to my grandmother's house, a little oasis on Spain's Costa Brava.

My paternal grandmother was not known for her cooking. I was just relieved to be saved from the funeral arrangements in France and she was glad for the company that summer. Being the only granddaughter that speaks French, we shared stories, songs and books that summer, along with an apricot tart.

Her property in Spain had a lovely flower garden along with lemon, almond and apricot trees. We wandered in the garden and picked the fruit. It was my first taste of fresh apricots. They hung on the trees, fully ripe. Round and bright, they sat in bowls looking eager to be broken apart, eaten. She said, "why don't you make apricot tart?" Suddenly, she was really redeeming herself for having this recipe roll off her tongue- she seemed like an expert cook. I have always been sorry I did not write down her recipe.

The recipe below is heavily adapted from Bon Appetit magazine, and originally used canned apricots. Seeing as they are in season now, I am using fresh. I don't think it would merit baking this tart out of season. I made several omissions (such as the honey and almond extract) just to simplify the tart. The recipe is a bit complicated since you make a custard but then before baking you add more ingredients to the custard before filling the tart crust. I broke up the original recipe up to make it more user friendly. The last change I made was to use an entirely different pastry crust that uses ground almonds. I am not very skilled at pastry dough, I consider it pretty intimidating, but this one appealed to me because it didn't require rolling. Once it comes out of the food processor, I just pressed it to fit in the tart pan, then popped it in the freezer. It was pretty stress free compared to my usual experiences with pie dough.

I love the way the domes of the apricots peek through the custard in this almondy tart. Fresh apricots are sunny, like baby Roman's round, rosy cheeks.

Apricot Tart with Almonds

For the pastry crust
1/4 cup blanched almonds, lightly toasted and cooled
1 1/4 cups all purpose flour
3 tablespoons sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, chilled and cut into pieces
1 egg yolk

In a food processor fitted with a metal blade, pulse to finely grind the almonds. Add the flour, sugar and salt, and process to blend. Add the butter and pulse until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. With the machine running, add the egg yolk and extract through the feed tube and process until combined. Add the ice water and process just until a dough forms. Remove from the machine. Fit into a 9-inch tart pan with a removable bottom, pressing the dough first along the sides and then evenly across the bottom. Place in the freezer for at least 30 minutes to 1 hour.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

Line the dough with parchment paper and pie weights or beans. Bake for 15 minutes. Remove the parchment and weights and bake until golden brown, about 25 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool on a wire rack before filling.

For the custard
2/3 cup whole milk
1 2-inch piece vanilla bean split lengthwise
2 large egg yolks
3 tablespoons water
1 tablespoon cornstarch

Pour milk into saucepan. Scrape in seeds from vanilla bean; add bean. Bring to a simmer. Remove from heat. Whisk egg yolks, 3 tablespoons sugar and cornstarch in a bowl to blend. Gradually whisk milk mixture into yolk mixture. Return to pan. Whisk over medium heat until custard thickens and boils, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a bowl to cool and discard vanilla bean.

Custard, continued
1/2 cup blanched whole almonds
1/3 cup powdered sugar
1/4 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1 large egg
8 small apricots (adjust amount depending on their size)

Grind almonds and powdered sugar in a food processor. Add cooled custard, pulse to blend. Blend in butter and whole egg. Pour into crust, smooth top. Arrange apricot halves, round side up, on top of the filling.
Bake tart at 400 degrees until filling is set and golden, about 45 minutes. Cooking time will depend on your oven, so check at about 40 minutes. Cool completely in pan. Store any leftovers in refrigerator.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Honey Ricotta Cheesecake

It's Father's Day and dads deserve a treat today. There's no doubt, dads play a special role in the lives of their bambini. Just this week Roman started showering his Papa with kisses and unbridled squeals of joy upon arrival from work. What a gift. I thought I'd show my gratitude for P. by making him something truly scrumptious- a cheesecake in the style of the Ancient Romans, who apparently made it with ricotta. His reaction? "Possibly the best cheesecake I've ever had in my life."

This was my first time baking a cheesecake. I was always turned off by the amount of cream cheese in most recipes. I was won over by this recipe because of the ricotta. Since we've been in Italy, I have developed a real love for ricotta. Ricotta has many more uses than just lasagna. I love to spread it on toast, eat it with fruit, salads, or mixed with honey, pine nuts and orange zest just like they serve at this wonderful establishment. I have been searching for a ricotta tart recipe, and I came across this, by Giada di Laurentis. The crust is made with biscotti and can be made with your eyes closed. This cake can and should be made ahead since it needs to be chilled. It's decadent eaten for breakfast with coffee.

Honey Ricotta Cheesecake

8 ounces purchased biscotti (I used biscotti with almonds)
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
12 ounces fresh whole milk ricotta, drained
16 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup orange blossom or clover honey
1 tablespoon orange zest
4 large eggs

Preheat oven to 350.

Finely grind the biscotti in a food processor. Add the melted butter and process until the crumbs are moistened. Press the crumb mixture over the bottom (not the sides) of a 9-inch springform pan with 2 3/4-inch-high sides. Bake until the crust is golden, about 15 minutes. Cool the crust completely on a cooling rack. In a clean food processor, blend the ricotta until smooth. Add the cream cheese and sugar and blend well, stopping the machine occasionally and scraping down the sides of the work bowl. Blend in the honey and orange zest. Add the eggs and pulse just until blended.

Pour the cheese mixture over the crust in the pan. Bake until the cheesecake is golden and the center of the cake moves slightly when the pan is gently shaken, about 1 hour and 5 minutes (the cake will become firm when it is cold).

Transfer the cake to a rack and cool 1 hour. Refrigerate until the cheesecake is cold, at least 8 hours and up to 2 days. Cut the cake into wedges and serve.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Circle of life

My mother was a talented, daring cook who explored the world with her cooking. Her gusto in the kitchen made food a central part of our family and my best memories of her center on sharing food. How we would sit together picking apart crabs brought home from China Town in NY, our shared excitement at visiting the Rockland Bakery late at night and getting fresh rolls right out of the oven, the time she fashioned her own bread to look like a pair of breasts, seeing her light up a baked alaska on New Year's Eve, and how she always treated me to lobster on my birthday! She said I was a child after her own culinary heart and that I would grow up to outshine her in the kitchen.

This week marks 20 years since my mother's life ended at age 44. When memories fade and people to tell me stories of her become scarce, food is there to remind me. Those of us left behind continue to feast just as she asked us to. We carrying on with our lives, passing a love of food on to our own children, instilling in them the importance of delighting in simple pleasures which make a meal a feast.
When my mother was 42, she threw my dad a huge 50th birthday party- a feast for 50 guests in our backyard with our best friends and family. Her pride and joy that night was the Italian Bread Wreath she skillfully baked. It was the first and last time she ever made it, so after 20 years it seems fitting I give it a try in her memory. This weekend I made two wreaths, one Saturday and one today. The Saturday wreath was excellent in all aspects except for appearance- a major detail... I deemed it unblogworthy, gave away half and ate a good portion of that loaf. This morning, my supply of all-purpose flour was greatly diminished and since there was no point in venturing out at 7:30 on a Sunday in Italy, I used what was left of the regular flour, plus some stone ground wheat flour and a bit of spelt flour. Rolling out the dough, with Roman strapped to my back, I made sure the strands were a full 32 inches long, which I realized is 3 inches longer than Roman himself. The second loaf, you see in the photo above, is something I'm quite proud of myself. Hopefully this will be in my repertoire now for many family feasts to come. Happy Feasting!

Italian Bread Wreath
In memory of Elizabeth Bradspies Gallant 1946-1990

1 package active dry yeast
1 3/4 cups warm water
1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon salt
2 tablespoons butter, softened
6 1/2 - 7 cups flour
3 eggs

Sprinkle yeast over warm water in large bowl of electric mixer. (You can also do this step by hand with a bowl and wooden spoon.) Add sugar and let stand about 5 minutes until yeast is soft. Add salt and butter. Stir until the salt dissolves. Add 3 1/2 cups of the flour. Mix to blend, then beat at medium speed until smooth and elastic, about 5 minutes. Beat in two of the eggs. Gradually stir in about 2 1/2 more cups of flour to make a soft dough.

Turn dough out onto a board coated with some of the remaining 1/2 to 1 cups flour. Knead the dough until smooth and satiny and small bubbles form just under the surface (10 to 15 minutes) adding more flour to prevent dough from being sticky. turn dough into a greased bowl and cover. Let rise in warm place until almost doubled in bulk (1-1 1/2 hours)

Punch dough down and turn out onto lightly floured surface. Cover with inverted bowl and let rest for 10 minutes. Pinch off and reserve about 1 cup of the dough. Divide the remaining dough into two equal portions. Shape each into a strand about 32 inches long. Place strands side by side; twist loosely together, then form a 10 inch wreath on a large, greased baking sheet. Pinch ends together to seal.

Divide reserved dough into 10 equal pieces. Roll each under the palms into a strand about 10 inches long. Beat remaining egg with 2 teaspoons water to blend yolk and white; brush lightly over bread wreath. Shape each strand of dough into an S-shaped curve. Place curved strands over wreath at evenly spaced intervals. Brush decorations with a little more of the egg.

Let wreath rise until it looks puffy, 30 -45 minutes. Brush all over with remaining egg, using as much of it as possible. Preheat oven to 400. Bake 20 minutes then reduce heat to 325 and continue baking until wreath is golden brown and sounds hollow when tapped (25-30 minutes)

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Rise and Shine White Loaves

Waking up at 5:30 with Roman has its up sides, like seeing the sun rise, hearing the first birds singing, and well, being awake before most everyone... Today we started off the morning by putting up some bread dough. We had a breakthrough of sorts in the kitchen. Normally Roman stands and jumps in his small playpen in the kitchen. This entertains him for only a very short time before complains to be held, and morphs his face into a silent cry which is too agonizing to bear. So, while I was kneading the dough, I decided to release him from captivity and set him on the floor with a container full of plastic tupperware tops and bottoms. Problem solved. Now onto the bread.

These white loaves come from Baking with Julia, a book in which she collaborated with America's best bakers. These loaves are soft and flavorful, thanks to the addition of salt and butter. I find Italian bread to be quite bland because it has no salt. That is fine if you are topping it with cheese, salami, tapenade, etc., but to eat plain, I like my bread with a little flavor. Hundreds of years ago, Italians stopped putting salt in their bread dough to avoid a tax on salt, and this just kind of stuck.

We started this dough at 6 am and by 10 it was cooling on the counter, just in time for Roman's nap. This recipe gives instructions for making bread with a mixer. I don't own one and I have always made bread with a trusty wooden spoon. It comes out fine and gives my right arm the extra muscle tone to match my left one, which I always use to hold Roman. Therefore I have adapted the instructions for simply using your own arm, the old-fashioned way.

White Loaves
Makes 2 1 3/4 lb loaves

2 1/2 cups warm water
1 tablespoon active dry yeast
1 tablespoon sugar
7 cups (approximately( bread flour or unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon salt
1/2 stick (2 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature

Mixing & Kneading
Pour 1/2 cup of the water into a large bowl and sprinkle in the yeast and sugar. Whisk to combine. Allow the mixture to rest about 5 minutes until the yeast is creamy. Add the remaining 2 cups water and 3 1/2 cups of the flour and stir. Then add another 3 1/2 cups of flour and the salt. Stir until the dough begins to come together, scraping down the sides of the bowl and incorporating all the flour. Turn this out onto a floured board or countertop, Adding small amounts of flour to prevent the dough from sticking, break up the softened butter and knead this into the dough. This is messy, but just keep at it until the dough is smooth.

First rise
Shape the dough into a ball. Place it in a buttered or oiled bowl and cover the bowl with a kitchen towel. Let it rest at room-temperature until it doubles in bulk, about 45 minutes to 1 hour.

Shaping the dough
Butter 2 loaf pans and set aside.
Punch down the dough to deflate it and turn it out onto a lightly floured surface. Split the dough in half. Working with one half at a time, pat the dough into a rectangle about 9 inches wide and 12 inches long. Starting at the top of the rectangle, gently roll the dough up, then seal the seam by pinching together. Place the loaf, pinched side down, into the loaf pan. Repeat with second loaf.

Second rise
Cover the pans with a kitchen towel and let rise until they are growing over the tops of the pans, 45 minutes to an hour.

Bake at 375 for 35-45 minutes until golden brown. They are done when they sound hollow when tapped on the bottom. Remove them from the pans and let them cool on racks. They should not be cut into until they are almost completely cooled. Waiting is the hardest part.
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