Sunday, October 30, 2005

The Melting Pot

A mountain of cheese.

It seems a little silly to write about making fondue. I'm sure that if you live in or regularly visit a country that includes part of the Alps, then perhaps you see fondue on a regular basis, but there are no alps around here, and fondue may be the epitome of the food fad. Sadly, I am not enough of a food historian to be able to pinpoint with any exactitude the apex of the American fondue obsession, but I think that I'm on fairly safe ground when I say that at some point two or three decades ago, on any Saturday evening, you could find hundreds of hostesses across the country whipping up fondues for their dinner guests. Surely hundreds of thousands of fondue sets were given as wedding gifts. It is, of course, possible that there were only a thousand or so such sets and that they were recidivistically regifted around the country, but the continued proliferation of fondue pots, stands, and forks in consignment stores and at yard sales suggests otherwise.

I'm pretty sure that the first time I experienced fondue was at a party being hosted by the parents of my first girlfriend (the whole entanglement, to the extent there was any tangling, did not last very long, as I turned out to be insufficiently forward; this perhaps should have been a clue to me, but I was determinedly dense in those days; some would say not much has changed on that front, except that I'm dense in other areas, but let's not go there). They had both a cheese and a chocolate fondue going simultaneously, and if memory serves, they were both good, but I viewed them more as curiosities than anything else.

I don't remember exactly when I acquired my own fondue set, but it seems likely that it would have been a wedding present, since by the time I married, the fondue craze would have been well behind us, and my family is always at least a few years behind the rest of the world, culinarily speaking. I remember my Aunt Beverly, for example, discovering crepes sometime in the early nineties.

The recipe and process for fondue are fairly well known. Almost every recipe I've seen begins with the instruction to cut a clove of garlic in half and rub it all over the inside of a heavy pot. Well, there'll be none of that here. I like garlic too much to be satisfied with having a clove of it rubbed on the inside of a pot. Especially a smooth pot. If you rub a clove of garlic across a piece of toasted coarse bread to make bruschetta, then you get a lot of garlic. On a smooth pot, you might get a whiff, but then again, you might get virtually nothing except a nod to tradition, and while I have nothing against tradition (excuse me while I stop and make sure there are no bolts of lightning headed in my direction), fondue is not one of my traditions, so I can do whatever I like with it.

And, you know, right now I'm really wondering why you can't make your fondue as some sort of variant on a mornay sauce. You know: roux, wine, simmer, cheese, dip, etc. After all, a fondue is traditionally thickened with cornstarch, so what would be so wrong with going down the veloute route (I was going to put the acute accent on the end of velouté, but the idea of pronouncing it "veloot root" amuses me way more than it has any reason to do)? Perhaps I'll try that sometime. Because, you know, there are all these dire warnings in fondue recipes about how to stir. Apparently, stirring in a traditional circular pattern doesn't melt the cheese properly or causes the sauce to separate or turns your wooden spoon into a giant cheese lollipop or summons a demon from one of the less threatening dimensions of hell. It's difficult to get rid of such demons because your kitchen is inevitably a happier place than where they come from. There's no fire or brimstone there, but they're still using rotary phones, and all the coffeehouses serve lukewarm coffee with artificial creamer. Anyway, some people will tell you to stir your fondue in a figure eight and others say to make a zig zag pattern. I don't think either of these suggestions go far enough. Figure eights and zig zags are still repetitive patterns, and if circles form lumps or demons or whatever, then it seems reasonable that other repetitive patterns would give you similar problems, though perhaps of a smaller magnitude. I say no repetition whatsoever. Stir your fondue by making the figures of numbers. And to make sure you aren't repeating yourself, I suggest either π or e. Here is a page with some links to places that will give you pi to several hundred thousand digits, which should be sufficient for any amount of fondue. I'm sure there are similar pages for e, and I hope you won't think I'm being irrational if I tell you to find them yourself. Advanced chefs should stir according to the digits of i. Chefs who fear the math may instead trace out the letters of Shakespeare's sonnets, though that is a risky maneuver, given the regularity of iambic pentameter.

I'd been wanting to make some fondue for some time, and since V. was home from his consulting gig in Ethiopia yesterday, I figured I could make a relatively easy and informal dinner by making a fondue with bread and vegetables to dip into it. I was going to go old school, too, and use kirsch and Gruyere and Emmenthaler and maybe even the zig zag stirring method, but when I got to Giant, the Gruyere was $9.99 a pound, and while I stand in firm solidarity with the need of my bovine brethren (just let it go, ok?) to make a living, I'm relatively certain that the cows are seeing almost none of that money. Why they don't at least organize is beyond me, but since they're not getting the money either way, I figured I would save myself some money by getting the cheese at Costco. I ended up paying as much as I would have at Giant, but I also ended up with three times as much cheese. Costco had Emmenthaler but not Gruyere, so I boldly substituted Jarlsberg and launched into "He's a Rebel." As it happens, breaking into song in the middle of Costco on a late Saturday afternoon will garner you a large share of uneasy looks, but I figure that's because I forgot to bring my backup singers (The Anapestiquettes), and people are not used to hearing "He's a Rebel" as a bass baritone solo, even with perfect intonation. Still, everyone was impressed enough to back away from me and give me a clear path to the checkout, which just goes to show that true talent can't be kept down.

When you have too much cheese, the best thing to do is grate it all and freeze whatever you're not using. Then you've always got some grated cheese, which is, of course, of great culinary value. I mixed the two cheeses together. They work pretty well as a team.

I'm going to give you my recipe here, but you might want to make some adjustments. I had already grated the cheese and had the wine nearly to the simmer when I realized that I am living with a man who has no cornstarch. I think I must have thrown my own cornstarch away before I moved in, and since I use it very rarely, I never noticed that I didn't have any until it was too late. I substituted instant flour, and that worked well enough. The fondue did eventually break, but not until we were both pretty well stuffed. Cornstarch might have kept it together longer. Anyway, it was yummy. Also, this recipe makes way too much for two people, so if you're going to make it or something like it, then you'll want to invite another couple of people over. None of our tables is really small enough to have four people comfortably dipping into the fondue pot at the same time, but I'm working on getting V. to make some sensible furniture changes, including replacing the large breakfast nook table (which is mainly used to hold piles of unopened mail or racks of cooling cookies) with a table that will seat four and only four. Fondue seems like too much fun not to share with more people, unless, of course, you're cooking for a date, in which case, you'll be using your fork to feed your companion, and you'll enjoy that more if it's just the two of you.


1.75 c. dry white wine (I used Fisheye Pinot Grigio, mainly because of the cool label, though it made a good table wine to go along with the dinner)
2 cloves garlic, finely minced or pureed
2 cups (generous) of grated Jarlsberg
2 cups (also generous) of grated Emmenthaler
2 T. instant flour
2 T. sherry
Black pepper

Put the wine and the garlic in your fondue pot (if the bottom is heavy enough) or another heavy saucepan over medium heat until it reaches a simmer.
Toss the grated cheeses and the instant flour together in a bowl until they are well mixed.
When the wine reaches the simmer, add a handful of grated cheese and begin stirring in the manner of your choice.
Continue to add the cheese, a handful at a time, without rushing, until it is all incorporated. Stir in the sherry and grind some black pepper into it and stir that in, too. If you weren't using your fondue pot, transfer the fondue to the fondue pot, and put it over your flaming Sterno.

You can dip whatever you like into the fondue. Cubes of lightly toasted baguettes are traditional and a good choice. In addition to the bread cubes, I parboiled some broccoli and cauliflower florettes, and I put out some grape tomatoes, which I had wisely not parboiled. If you're an advanced user, you can put out cubes of another cheese. I didn't actually do that, though I was sorely tempted to cube a tiny bit of the Gorgonzola that I have in the refrigerator and dip that.

When I make fondue again, I'll likely try a different approach, and I will certainly add in some Dijon mustard. And I'll have some friends over. Preferably some friends who don't place an undo emphasis on The Way Things Have Always Been Done, but that describes most of my friends, so I don't reckon it'll be a problem.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Tarte aux Pommes

I'm not even going to pretend that I'm sorry for yet another puff pastry post. I reckon I might have been sorry if my apple tart hadn't turned out well, but, well, look at it. That is one seriously handsome and toothsome apple tart, I tell you what.

The great thing about making a fruit tart with puff pastry is that you cut one piece of dough, and you're done. All you have to do is lay out the fruit so that there is about a 3/4" band of uncovered dough around the perimeter, and when you bake it in a hot oven, the outer rim will rise higher than the rest of the tart and hold all the juices to give them a chance to thicken on the tart rather than on the baking sheet or on the bottom of the oven. In fact, had I had the sense to take my puff pastry out of the freezer and put it in the refrigerator in the morning, I could have made the entire tart, including baking, in forty minutes. I won't say how long it actually took, but I will say that if you don't turn the heat on in your house on a cold, rainy late October day, and the temperature in your kitchen is 58 degrees (sadly, I am not exaggerating, though given my history, I could scarcely blame you for thinking that I am; I did turn the heat on once I realized that it was only 58 degrees in there), and you put the frozen dough on your pastry marble, it will not achieve rollability with rapidity. Oops.

Tarte aux Pommes

A pound or so of puff pastry
2 golden delicious apples
juice of 1/2 lemon
1/3 c. sugar
1/4 t. cinnamon
egg wash

Preheat oven to 425 degrees

Cut the apples in half, remove the cores and tough bits at the tops and bottoms, peel, and slice crosswise, thinly. Toss them in a nonreactive bowl with the lemon juice.

Roll the puff pastry to a thickness of about 1/8 inch. Cut a 12" circle of the dough, and transfer the circle to your baking sheet.

Arrange the apple slices on top of the dough. Start in the center, and work outwards in concentric circles. The slices should overlap somewhat. The outside of the outer ring of apples should be between 3/4 inch and one inch from the outside of the circle.

Combine the sugar and cinnamon, and sprinkle it evenly over the apples.

Brush the uncovered part of the dough with the egg wash.

Bake the tart for twenty-five minutes, or until it's done.

When you take the tart out of the oven, it will probably still look wet, but the juices will thicken as it cools, and by the time it's cool enough to cut (i.e., still pretty warm), it will be entirely solid, though pleasantly moist and tender.

The "about a pound" of puff pastry in this recipe was one of the three pieces of dough that I cut my puff pastry in when I made it this past weekend.

Fitting the apples to the dough is not rocket science, but you do have to think about it to make sure they'll fit right. I made my first and third circle of slices radially (if that's the right word), and my second circle so that the slices ran parallel to the outside of the circle, or at a 90 degree angle to the other two circles of slices. That way, it fit nicely.

The dough circle can be whatever size you want. I cut mine to the largest radius that would fit on my baking sheet. I cut the dough by inverting a fairly large metal bowl on the rolled out dough and then cutting around it with a pizza wheel. Whatever works for you. I had both dough and apple slices left over. I'm sure you can think of something to do with either. I ate the few extra apple slices, and I put the dough scraps back in the refrigerator to use later.

If by some chance (not that it's ever happened to me you understand, you get a bubble in the dough where the top layer (or top few layers) have expanded away from the rest of the dough, you can pierce it with the tip of a paring knife when you take it out of the oven, and it will settle back down, and no harm will have been done.

I bought a jar of apricot preserves so that I could make a glaze for the tart, but when it came out of the oven, there didn't seem to be any point.

Ideally, you will let the tart cool somewhat but not entirely before you eat it. It's very good at room temperature, but depriving yourself of a slice of warm apple tart is a hill of asceticism that you don't want to climb.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The Puff Pastry Obsession Continues Unabated

To be honest, when I said in a previous post that you could get all-butter puff pastry but it would run you $40 a pound, I hadn't done any research. I was relying on lindy, who had given the high price as a reason for wanting to learn to make it herself. I didn't bother to do any fact checking because my source was highly reliable (i.e., all of her recipes work), but I started to wonder about the economics of making your own feuilletage, and the $40 figure sounded like a rounded number to me, so I surfed on over to Williams-Sonoma, and I discovered that $40 was actually a conservative number. W-S is actually charging $42.50. Here's what their website has to say about the product:

Dufour Puff Pastry Dough

Internet/Catalog Only

Making puff pastry from scratch takes more time and patience than even the most seasoned home cooks are willing to devote to the task. Fortunately, New York’s award-winning DuFour Pastry Kitchen has done the work for you. This buttery dough produces the lightest, flakiest puff pastry imaginable. Professional pastry chefs consider it the best premade dough on the market, so we’re especially pleased to offer it to our customers for baking restaurant-quality creations at home. Following a classic French recipe, the dough and butter are meticulously rolled out into hundreds of ultrathin layers that puff up in the oven during baking. The dough arrives frozen, ready for transforming into savory or sweet delights from soupe en croute or beef Wellington to tarts and napoleons. Baking instructions are included. The dough will keep for six months frozen, unopened. 14 oz. (one 14" x 11" sheet.)

To ensure freshness, perishable items are shipped overnight from the supplier. Orders will be delivered within one week.

For Halloween delivery, please order by 10/21 - 10/24.

This item cannot be gift wrapped.

That's right. Fourteen ounces for $42.50, and they won't even gift wrap it for you. I mean, really, if you're the sort of person who can drop $42.50 for less than a pound of puff pastry, aren't you the sort of person who'd want to give it to someone else, perhaps as a stocking stuffer, and aren't you further the sort of person who can't be bothered to wrap it yourself? I suppose that the W-S people figure that you'll just have your staff wrap it, or that you'll order two, and use one to make some Napoleons for Santa who, in a gesture of gratitude, will wrap it for you.

But it doesn't stop there, readers. Because that $42.50 includes neither shipping nor tax. Unsurprisingly, frozen puff pastry dough is something that needs to be delivered with some rapidity, and you'll pay an additional $8.50 for delivery. They were also prepared to charge me an additional $2.14 for tax, bringing the cost of my fourteen ounces of puff pastry to $53.13, a whopping $3.79 per ounce of puff pastry.

Now, of course, you can run out to the supermarket and get more than a pound of puff pastry for not much more than $3.79. And that puff pastry you get out of the freezer at the local supermarket will work admirably for a number of dishes. But here's what you get:

INGREDIENTS: Unbleached Enriched Wheat Flour [Flour, Malted Barley Flour, Niacin, Reduced Iron, Thiamin Mononitrate (Vitamin B1), Riboflavin (Vitamin B2), Folic Acid), Partially Hydrogenated Vegetable Shortening (Soybean And Cottonseed Oils Colored With Beta Carotene), Water, Salt, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Distilled Monoglycerides (From Hydrogenated Soybean Oil) And Soy Lecithin.

I'm not going to go all health nut on you here; after all, my breakfast often comes from McDonald's. And let's face it, anything with 6.5 sticks of butter in it is not going to be a health food, but if you're going for flavor, you're going to be better off with my butter, flour, salt, and water, than you will be with you-know-who's partially hydrogenated vegetable shortening, high fructose corn syrup, and distilled monoglycerides (though I will be the first to acknowledge that "Distilled Monoglycerides" would make a very amusing name for a band).

There may be times when you (but probably not I) want the flakiness of puff pastry without the butter, and in those cases, you may as well use the stuff from the supermarket. I'm not anti-convenience, after all, and I wouldn't, for example, tell you to make your own phyllo dough.

But the overly easy makes me uneasy. I have no good reason for such a feeling, and heaven knows that when I'm a guest at someone's table, I'm very appreciative of whatever level of effort they've expended to bring the meal to the table. After all, you go to see your friends to spend time with your friends, and if they want to get carry out Thai food or have pizza delivered and pair it with beer, well, if I were to sit here and tell you that I wouldn't gratefully devour either Thai food or pizza (or beer), God would surely come into existence for the simple purpose of striking me dead as a liar who has not even bothered to establish plausible deniability.

But if you like cooking, and when you set a plate of food in front of your friends, you want to have made it yourself, then join me in telling Williams-Sonoma what they can do with their $60.72/pound puff pastry. I made my puff pastry for less than $1.25 per pound, and even if you buy your butter from the supermarket when it's not on sale, you'll spend less than $2/pound. Plus, when your guests say, "This puff pastry is so good; is it [you know who]?" you'll be able to say, "Oh, no, I made it myself," and people will look upon you with the awe that is normally reserved for petulant minor deities. (You may want to make it clear that you frown on live sacrifices, but you should accept other gifts graciously.) As much as I'd like more people to realize that puff pastry is not that hard to accomplish, I'm still entirely willing to accept the reputational benefits of the bakery lobby's campaign of disinformation.

Monday, October 24, 2005


A good deal of my culinary knowledge begins and ends with Julia Child and comes from the days when I was an undergraduate in Boston and would rather watch one of the many reruns of one of her series than do something silly like go to class. And I'm sure that the only two times I've seen a Pithviers made were by Julia. To the best of my knowledge (and for heaven's sake feel free to correct me either by comment or email if I make a mistake on culinary history or, you know, grammar, where grammatical mistakes do not include run-on sentences because, after all, if you had to comment or email me once for each of my run-on sentences, you'd have little time to do anything else), only one of them was really a Pithiviers; the second was a savory tart in the form of a Pithiviers. I believe that a true Pithiviers is a dessert and that the filling is some sort of almond cream, but I am too lazy to look it up, and if I did look it up, I would have no way of being certain that my source was authoritative, though I reckon I could go downstairs and look in my Larousse Gastronomique, which I picked up at the church bazaar last year for two bucks*.

Since I had very recently made a few pounds of puff pastry, and since I have always wanted to make a Pithiviers, or at least something in the shape of a Pithiviers, I figured now was a good time to give it a try. I wasn't looking to make a dessert, however, so I went with something savory.

In form, a Pithiviers is two circles of puff pastry with a solid filling. The first circle of puff pastry is placed on your baking sheet and then the filling is mounded in the center. Then the second circle is placed on top of the filling and sealed to the unfilled part at the edges of the first circle. It all goes into a very hot oven until the puff pastry is done.

I reckon that you can use any fairly solid filling for a Pithiviers. I had a couple of Vidalia onions in the refrigerator, so I sliced half of one thin and cooked it very slowly in a tablespoon of olive oil until it got very soft. Then I turned the heat up to medium and cooked the onion until it had caramelized somewhat. At the same time, I toasted two tablespoons of pine nuts in the toaster oven, and I preheated my main oven to 425 degrees. When the onions were nicely browned, I added a good pinch of kosher salt and a grinding of pepper. Then I stirred in the pine nuts. Finally, I removed the whole shebang from the heat, and I stirred in about two ounces of crumbled gorgonzola. If I were making the same dish again, I would add a half tablespoon or so of balsamic vinegar to the onions while they were cooking.

I took one of the three pieces of puff pastry that I'd made earlier, and I rolled it out to a thickness of about a quarter inch*. Then I took a pot lid with a diameter of about 7 inches, and using it as a template, I cut out two circles of dough with a paring knife. I put one circle on my half sheet pan, and mounded as much of the filling in the center of the circle as I could manage while still leaving about an inch free around the edge. Then I painted the edge with an egg wash.

I took the second circle and rolled it about an inch wider than it had been. Then, with a tiny cutter, I cut a bit out of the center to allow venting. I put the second circle on top of the filling, making sure that it covered the filling fairly tightly without squashing it down. Then I pressed down around the edges to get a good seal. I made a few small decorative cuts through both layers of the edge of the pastry with my paring knife, and then I covered the top pastry with some more egg wash. Then right into the 425 degree oven for 25 minutes.

When you're cooking puff pastry of any sort, you want a fairly hot oven, and you don't want to open the oven to look at it for at least fifteen minutes. This practice is as much for your benefit as for the benefit of your pastry. In the initial stages of baking, puff pastry mostly looks like it's weeping butter, but if you wait until it's nearly done, it pulls the butter back in somehow, and everything comes out swell. Also, if you take too much of the heat out of the oven by peeking, you won't get sufficient puff. Generations of neophyte French chefs have been devastated when their professors have looked at their vol-au-vent are whatever and sneered "eeeensuffeeeeshent pooof." Come to think of it, I've known a few insufficient poofs in my time, but perhaps we won't go there just now.

While you're waiting for your Pithiviers to bake up nicely, you'll probably want to do something with the puff pastry that was leftover when you cut the circles out of it. This is not something that you can waste, even if you can make three pounds of it in an hour and a half. What you want to do is to fit the scraps together as best you can and use your rolling pin to sort of bring them together into a single sheet, which will be not at all regular, but do your best. My favorite thing to do with them at this point is to grate finely some cheese (I used pecorino romano today, but a sharp cheddar would also be yummy) on top of the pastry. Then grind some black pepper on, fold the pastry in thirds as if you were making another turn during the puff pastry creation process, and roll it out to about a quarter inch. Then use a knife to cut it into rectangles of the size you prefer. I made mine about an inch by two inches. Put them on another baking sheet, and when you pull your Pithiviers out of the oven, put your cheese puffs in and bake them for eighteen to twenty minutes, or until they're as done as you like them. Remember not to undercook them, or they won't be crisp.

Let your Pithiviers cool when it comes out of the oven. You can serve it at any temperature you like. The slice in the first picture was taken when it was still fairly warm (it was a great deal flakier and crisper than it appears in that picture). And it was very good when it was still warm, but both the filling and the pastry were significantly better, to my taste, when it had fully cooled. I may make another one because the filling that I made, though it didn't seem like that much before I crumbled in the gorgonzola was twice as much as I could get onto a seven-inch Pithiviers. Perhaps I should have made a slightly larger pastry, but it's fairly rich, and I think that a seven-inch version would make a nice first course for six to eight people at a dinner party. I would perhaps sauce it with a rich rosemary bechamel, but I would have to think about it some more.

For those unfortunate souls who cannot abide blue cheese in any of its manifestations, most goat cheeses would make a good substitution, or you could just go with any cheese that moves you. Or you could go with something else altogether, though the cheese is nice because when it melts it brings the entire filling together. Still, you could fill the Pithiviers with any number of combinations and have something delicious.

* Don't you just love my total lack of consistency with respect to footnotes on this site? Anyway, I happened to be downstairs, and I took a look in my Larousse, and a Gâteau de Pithiviers is, technically, indeed filled with an almond cream made of almonds, eggs, butter, sugar, and rum. Larousse tells you to roll the puff pastry out to a thickness of 1/16 inch, but that's just crazy. Of course, I don't carry a caliper around to measure my dough, and mine probably was closer to 1/8 inch thick than 1/4 inch. Let's call it 3/16 inch and a day.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Saturday Morning Staples: the Puff Pastry Post

As an absolutely fabulous A-list homosexual, I had of course planned to use this post to review the latest Madonna album. But then I realized that after my last post, which was dedicated entirely to politics, if I were to venture into the realm of popular music, my readers might think that I'd entirely abandoned writing about food. And then, earlier this week, while reading another blog, I was inspired to both make puff pastry and write about making it. Which is a very good thing, because while I have nothing against Madonna, I don't own any of her albums, I haven't heard anything from the new album, and I don't even know why a lot of the gay bloggers call her "Madge." I could probably state, with relative certainty, that her new album is round, but I reckon that review could be considered less than insightful, so let's talk about puff pastry and everyone will be happier.

One can only presume, from all of the fear and loathing that have been inspired by puff pastry, that someone somewhere (is there a bakery cabal operating beneath the radar?) has an interest in making otherwise competent cooks think that puff pastry is an Everest that they're likely to die upon. Nothing could be farther from the truth. You do have to follow a few guidelines, and you do have to take a certain amount of care at important steps of the process, but all in all, I find making puff pastry easier than making pie dough.

I hear that Williams-Sonoma is now selling all-butter puff pastry for $40 a pound. To which I can only say, "Egad!" This morning, I made 54 ounces of puff pastry in an hour and a quarter at a cost of less than $8. I say this not to brag but to demonstrate that even if you try to do what I did and you fail horribly (and there's no reason why you shouldn't succeed magnificently), you will really have invested very little. So be fearless. You have little to lose.

A few basics. The entire process will be much easier if you have a pastry marble. Mine is 18 x 24 and cost me some ridiculously small amount of money ten or twelve years ago. If you don't have a pastry marble, you can use your countertop. Before you begin rolling, you may want to rub ice cubes across your rolling surface and then dry it well. You'll also want a large rolling pin. My large rolling pin is missing, so I used my 12-inch marble pin, and I really wished I'd had my giant wood one. It didn't have an impact on the final product, but I fell much more confident with the bigger one. A dough scraper is very useful for helping with the turns.

You want to keep everything as cold as possible. If the dough starts to heat up, or becomes difficult to work with, or you start to feel harried, put everything back in the refrigerator for a bit and take a break. Don't be afraid to use extra flour in the rolling. You don't want a ton of excess flour, but you don't want the dough to stick, either. If the flour ever cakes up on the dough, you can always brush it off.

You will need 6.5 sticks of butter, 4 cups of all-purpose flour (measured by the dip and sweep method), and a cup of ice water. If you are using unsalted butter, you will also need a teaspoon of salt.

The first thing you want to do is cut your butter. I use the dough scraper for this task. Cut each stick in half, lengthwise, and then cut crosswise into eight pieces. You can make the crosswise cuts for four sticks of butter at once with my dough scraper, which I believe is the most common size of dough scraper. When the butter is cut, gather it into a metal bowl and put it in the freezer. Measure the flour into the bowl of your stand mixer, add the salt if you're using it, and put the flour in the freezer while you get the ice water ready.

Put the paddle attachment on your mixer. Add the butter to the flour and mix on the lowest speed for perhaps a minute. Some of the butter will blend into the flour, but there will still be large lumps of butter that only get coated by the flour.

With the mixer on low, add the ice water in a stream. The dough should form almost immediately. When you have a single big mass, you're ready to remove the dough from the mixer. It will be fairly sticky now, so make sure that you're hands and your marble are fairly well floured. Also, don't worry. It gets much easier to work with soon.

Put the dough mass out on your pastry marble. If you are a fan of zombie movies, this is a good time to stick your arms out straight and say "Braaaaainnnnns!" Otherwise, keep going.

Knead the dough lightly and flatten it out into a rectangle. Dust your rolling pin with flour, and roll the dough out into a rectangle that is about 18" long and 8" wide. Don't worry about being too exact, but the more even your rectangle, the easier it will be to make the folds. Rolling should not take a lot of pressure here, and you want to work as quickly as you can. If it's taking you longer, don't worry about it, but you may need to refrigerate your dough more times during the process.

Using your pastry scraper, fold the third of the dough farthest away from you back onto the middle third. Then fold the nearest third on top of that, so that the whole thing is folded like a business letter. You have now made one turn.

Flour the dough and the marble lightly again. Flip the dough over so that the seam is on the bottom and roll the dough back out to 18x8 again. Then fold it up the same way to complete the second turn. Flour and flip the dough again.

Roll the dough out and fold it up two more times to complete four turns. It is traditional, though unnecessary, to mark the number of turn in the dough by lightly pressing with your fingertips to form indentations. With each turn, the dough should seem more like something you want to work with and less like a gooey mass of butter and flour.

After the fourth turn (or sooner, if you feel that the dough is warming up or becoming difficult to work with), wrap the dough up carefully and refrigerate it for at least a half hour. You don't want your dough drying out, so wrap it carefully in plastic wrap and then either wrap it in a second sheet of plastic wrap or put it in a ziplock bag and put it in the refrigerator.

Roll the dough out and fold it up two more times to complete six turns. In the later turns, some of the butter will occasionally come through the dough and get sticky. Just sprinkle some flour on it and keep going.

Unless you plan to use all of the dough at once, you'll probably want to cut it into three pieces. After making such lovely dough, it will be difficult to cut up, but you will get over it eventually. Remember that the dough is much thicker now than it will be when you actually make something with it, so these three relatively small sheets will become much larger pieces of dough for you to work with.

Wrap each piece separately and carefully in plastic wrap. If you are going to use one or more of the pieces within the next day or two, store those pieces in the refrigerator. Otherwise, place the pieces you're not using immediately inside a freezer bag and store them in the freezer.

Several additional notes are in order here. In the past, I have always used 3 cups of all-purpose flour and 1 cup of cake flour. I thought I had cake flour, but I didn't, so I used only all-purpose flour. It worked just fine. In the picture at the beginning of the post, you see four rounds that were cut from the leftovers (after I had made something larger) of one of the three sheets of dough that I made this morning. They puffed admirably (from about 1/4 inch thick when they were cut to about 2.5 inches when they were done baking), though perhaps I could have cooked them a minute less than I did (they were at 425 degrees for about 25 minutes). I don't, however, think that puff pastry is at its best when it's light brown or golden brown. It will be soggy if you undercook it, and you don't want that. I will say that the flavor of my puff pastry was not perfect. Apparently, even when you buy the four-pound pack of butter from Costco, it's not safe to assume that it's salted butter. I didn't bother reading the package until I had baked some up and it seemed to lack salt, and as a result, only 3 of the 6.5 sticks I used were salted, and I should have added some salt to the flour. It still tasted very good, and the texture was perfect. Very crisp, with excellent puff. I will probably use slightly saltier fillings to compensate for not putting salt in the puff pastry, though.

If you use a lot of puff pastry, it would be a relatively easy thing to make two batches at the same time by using the time when batch 1 is resting to begin batch 2. In that way, you could make 7 pounds of puff pastry in less than two hours and be the envy of all your friends.

The French name for this pastry is pâte feuilletée rapide. As I have probably said before, if you would prefer to make the classique version, more power to you. But then you should expect to take a considerably longer amount of time and to end up with the same finished product. You will, of course, be able to bask in the warm glow of virtue, and, if there is an afterlife, you will likely be rewarded for your troubles. Still, you have to figure that with those extra two hours that you spent in the kitchen making feuilletage the way Escoffier would have approved of, you could have been out helping a neighbor and earning your karma points that way. We all know which option Madonna would choose.

Friday, October 21, 2005

The Political Post

Breakfast of champions
We here at anapestic want, above all else, to be considered in the know. True, we have elected to express ourselves almost entirely through the medium of turgid culinary prose, but we would not want you to think that we aren't up with what's going on, that we aren't au courant. Our principal difficulty arises when, having used a term like au courant, our collective mind (resistance really is futile, you know) wanders off to thinking that we also want to be à la mode, and that leads to visions of either us or, fortunately, yummy apple pie, being covered with ice cream, and when we say apple pie, we don't mean just any old apple pie, we mean the Platonic ideal of apple pie, made with fresh autumn apples graced with little more than sugar, some grated lemon peel, and a soupcon (we love the word "soupcon" in spite of ourselves: we have never pretended to virtue) of cinnamon baked in a thick, tender, flaky all-butter crust that, after having been simply but appealingly crimped with our very own hands, has been cosseted with a protective donut of aluminum foil so that -- despite its having been exposed to the initial high heat necessary for the proper browning of the crust -- it achieves a rich golden brown with no scorching, the very sort of pie that served warm (but not hot) causes the vanilla ice cream to soften into it so that people eat it in an appreciative silence broken only by the occasional bewildered acknowledgment that there are parts of our country where people actually eschew the ice cream not in favor of unadorned apple pie glory but in favor of something that more properly belongs on the inside of a grilled cheese sandwich.

But we're here to discuss politics, not apple pie, so let's pretend for the moment that our mind did not wander from our task, which is, as you will doubtless have gathered, to discuss the merits of chicken liver mousse made with rosemary.

It goes without saying that my entirely perceptive and intelligent readers will have made the connection between politics and chicken liver mousse made with rosemary, but in the unlikely event that, thirty or forty years hence, some unfortunate graduate student in Internet Studies is constructing a dissertation entitled Deservedly Unknown Food Bloggers of the Early Twenty-First Century: a Study in Edible Futility, I will elucidate.

Few subjects these days loom larger in the political mind than planning for and responses to natural disasters. I could, of course, stick to disasters that have already happened. I could, with equal ease, discuss disasters that have not yet occurred but that are considered likely to occur in some form or other in the relatively near term. But does it not make more sense to plan for the disasters that we are relatively certain will not come to pass? (This, reader, is a rhetorical question: you are not allowed to answer "no," no matter how sensible it might appear to do so.) And what disaster would create a culinary dystopia so horrific as to be virtually unimaginable? Precisely: a world without herbs.

But I (it appears that I abandoned the whole "we" thing some time back; I refer you yet again to Mr. Emerson's statement about consistency and little minds) do not wish to throw you into the slough of despond without a ladder (or whatever one uses to climb out of a slough). Even unfortunate Pandora, having released a truckload of hurt on an unsuspecting world, was able to look down and see hope in her box. So in our little disaster planning exercise, I leave you one herb. I even leave you the herb that I would be most loath to do without. (It's my notional disaster, and all of you cilantro enthusiasts can just suck it up; I didn't take away your lime or your hot peppers, did I?)

Anyway, here's your disaster recovery plan.

Better Chicken Liver Mousse

6 T. unsalted butter
1 c. diced onion
1 t. fresh rosemary leaves, chopped
1/2 t. dried thyme 1
1 pear, peeled, cored, and diced 2
6 prunes, halved
1/4 t. peppercorns, crushed 3
4 whole allspice, crushed
3/4 t. kosher salt
1 pound chicken livers, picked over and patted dry
1/4 c. cognac
2 T. heavy cream4
1/2 t. dijon mustard
1/2 T. additional cognac
Clarified butter, melted

In a skillet, melt the butter. Add the onions, and cook on low heat until they are soft and translucent.

Increase the heat to medium. Add the rosemary, thyme, pear, and prunes. Cover the pan, and cook for three minutes.

Increase the heat to high. Add the livers, peppercorns, salt, and allspice, and cook for three more minutes, tossing or turning the livers so that they get cooked on all sides.

Add the 1/4 c. of cognac. Ignite the cognac5, and let it cook until the flames subside. Remove the pan from the heat and let cool.

When the liver mixture has cooled enough for you to handle it, transfer it to the bowl of your food processor; process until smooth. Add the cream, mustard, and last half tablespoon of cognac, and process again.

No double boilers were harmed in the making of these mousses.Pack the liver mixture into whatever containers you want to store it in. Smooth the top. Then carefully spoon the melted clarified butter over the mousse until you have a layer at least a quarter-inch thick on top. Cover the containers with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

1Hire a lawyer and sue me. Even after the notional mass herbicide of 2006, a limited supply of dried herbs will still be available, though, obviously, at vastly increased prices. The particular vial of thyme that I will have had to acquire to make this mousse will have cost me my third child. The dealer will have been plenty annoyed when he will have learned that I (will still) only have two children, but he will have ought to have asked (how do I get myself into these tense-related disasters?) beforehand. Arguably, I will have implied that I have at least three children, but these will have been difficult times when morality will have become an unaffordable luxury. The spice herbs must flow!

2My pear was night very ripe (i.e., rocky), and I'm not sure that it added much, if anything, to the flavor of the mousse. It seemed like a good idea at the time, however. I might try an apple or a riper pear the next time. Or just more prunes.

3I couldn't locate my mortar and pestle last night, and the quantity of spice that I was using was too small to grind in my spice grinder. A sensible person would just grind 1/4 t. of black pepper and use 1/8 t. of ground allspice. Or grind a larger quantity of pâté spice and keep it around.

4The heavy cream got added at the end because the mixture was so thick that my food processor was not getting the crushed pepper and allspice fine enough. If you follow the advice in note 3, you could omit the cream. Though if you do that, I'd recommend starting with 8 T. of unsalted butter.

5I ignite my cognac by tipping the skillet towards the flame. If you don't want to do this (and it is a bit scary), or if you are using an electric oven, just use a match. Bring the match to the side of the skillet so that your hand is not over the skillet when you light it. Depending on how quickly after you pour the cognac you ignite it, the flames can be quite spectacular, and you don't want to get burned. I've never had a problem with flambeing, but be careful. Also, you'll want to make sure that your stovetop is not crowded before you set your food on fire. After the fire, the livers will look kind of weird and red on the outside, but don't worry about it: they're fine, and everything will look normal after you puree them.

This is, for the most part, the chicken liver mousse that I wanted. I had originally planned to pack it into two containers of equal size and to put some toasted pistachios in with half of the mousse, but when I was shopping last night after choir practice, I forgot the pistachios because I hadn't written them down on my list when I made it. I think they would have been very nice in the mousse, but it's very nice as it is. I could perhaps have used a bit more salt, but it is, of course, difficult to gauge how much salt something will need after it's been chilled while it's still warm or at room temperature. I also wish that I'd read one of the comments in the last post before I'd made the mousse because a boiled egg pureed along with everything else would have been a great addition. But, again, I'm happy with the mousse I've got, and that custard and egg white based monstrosity I wrote about in my last post is nothing but a bitter memory.

(And that reminds me. In the name of all that's holy, pick over your livers before you use them. I almost always find that the ones I've bought are just find, but this time, I did see a strand of green that was unmistakably bile, so I pulled it off and discarded it. Bile is the WMD of chicken liver mousse.)

I know that my readers will be devastated to hear this, but I have decided that in the future I shall once more eschew politics. It's just too tiring a topic, and I'm perfectly happy to live in denial, secure in the false knowledge that fresh herbs will always be available at the local Giant. Besides, if I decided to do a post about the Miers nomination, I'd have to bone a whole chicken, and I'm just not in the mood.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Nobody's Perfect

There are times when one looks in the mirror (and I'm speaking metaphorically here because there are no mirrors in our kitchen, though I suppose that if I wanted to check my hair or something, I could look in a knife blade or the door of the toaster oven, but I pay as little attention as possible to my hair, so it's unlikely to ever come up) and does not like what one sees. It is probably unreasonable to expect to achieve one's forties without having erred gravely at some point or another, but there were certain practices that had been, or so I thought, safely confined to a misspent youth, and last night I was forced to face the fact that I will, apparently, do almost anything in the name of expediency. Those of you with more tender sensibilities may wish to look away for a few moments, and I'll let you know when it's safe to return.

Last night, I used a double boiler to make a custard. I mean, sure, I was cooking two things at once, so I didn't want to stand over the custard and whisk constantly and risk either neglecting the other pan or curdling my yolks, but still: a double boiler. I felt decidedly unclean. And I'm not sure it was even necessary since the other pan was getting along just fine for several minutes at a time, and if I hadn't used the double boiler (which, you must understand, was not a true double boiler, but a Pyrex bowl set over a saucepan, which is just as bad, even if it is more attractive), I could have easily made the custard while the onions were sweating or the apples were cooking, instead of waiting forever for the custard to cook over the simmering water. But I didn't. I whisked my egg yolks and milk and mustard together and let it just sit there, heating gently. Egad. I can only begin to imagine where this lowering of standards will end. If you here in the news that a gay man in suburban Maryland was found dead in his kitchen with a can of spray cheese clutched in his cold, stiff hands, then you'll know exactly where the descent started: with a double boiler.


Chicken liver mousse, or anything involving liver of any sort, is something that I can't easily make when V. is around. His feelings about liver are identical to those of a typical seven-year-old boy, and no matter how one transforms the liver, he's having none of it. My own feelings about liver were similar until I was in my early twenties and started having good pâtés, mousses, and terrines in Boston, and then I was hooked. I have never yet produced what I would consider to be a wholly satisfactory pâté, but neither have I tried very hard. It is something of a lengthy process, what with all the baking and weighting and lacy cauls and what have you, and while I will doubtless undertake the undertaking at some point, the chicken liver mousse is a lot easier.

There's a perfectly good recipe for a similar concoction (it may be called a pâté, but I'm too lazy to look) in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, but I wanted to try something a bit different. The mousse I produced had rather more the consistency of a dip, but it was tasty enough. It also made entirely too much for one person, and I doubt that it can be successfully frozen. Fortunately, V.'s dog has already expressed tremendous interest in it, so when I inevitably can't eat it all, I at least know that it will be appreciated.

Chicken Liver Mousse

2 T. butter
1/2 medium onion, diced
1 apple, cored, peeled, and diced
1/2 t. dried thyme
1 pound chicken livers
1/2 cup cognac
3 eggs, separated
2/3 cup milk
1/2 tsp. dijon mustard
1/2 tsp. salt
freshly ground pepper
8 oz. cream cheese, cut into eight pieces

In a saute pan, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the onion and cook until translucent. Add the apple and thyme, cover, and cook for about three minutes. Turn the heat to medium high and add the livers. Toss or turn for three minutes until the livers are cooked all over on the outside but still somewhat rare on the inside. Add the cognac, ignite, and cook until the flames subside. Set aside to cool.

At more or less the same time, combine the egg yolks, the milk, the mustard, and the salt in a small saucepan or in the top of a double boiler. Cook, stirring, until the mixture thickens to coat well the back of a spoon. Grind in the pepper. Set aside to cool.

When both mixtures are approaching room temperature, place the liver mixture in the bowl of your food processor and puree until smooth. Add the custard and puree to incorporate. Add the cream cheese and process until smooth again.

Beat the egg whites to stiff peaks. Fold the egg whites into the liver mixture. Refrigerate the mousse for at least four hours.

The above picture was taken after two hours of refrigeration. I do not think that the mousse will ever become truly stiff, but it may become more spreadable and less of a dip. An additional egg would likely have been a good idea, or perhaps the substitution of whipped heavy cream for the cream cheese. Or, indeed, I could have incorporated some gelatin. I do not, however, mind a soft mousse. Which is a good thing, since that's what I've got.


After overnight refrigeration, the mousse was somewhat stiffer, but still too soft. I have decided that I am more displeased with the texture than I am pleased with the flavor. I don't get enough opportunities to make something like this to be satisfied with pretty good, so I'm going to dump it and try again with a somewhat different recipe. Liver is cheap, after all. More later.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Lebkuchen III

The semi-finished product.  Only six weeks to edibility!
I felt the need to bake yesterday evening. I was pretty beat: I was running on a week of nights with five or fewer hours of sleep, and when I'd taken L. to see the late afternoon showing of Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit at one of the local megaplexes (really: one million screens!) I had slept through perhaps eighty percent of the main feature. Still, when we got home, at 8:00, when I should have been planning a way to get to bed as early as possible, I decided to bake the lebkuchen.

I should here confess that the recipe that appears in the preceding post is really a double recipe. And the recipe that it is a double of already produces a generous number of lebkuchen. I have heard from people who have made some of my recipes, but I don't really expect that anyone is going to make the lebkuchen. If you know about lebkuchen, you've already got your own recipe, and if you don't, you probably have plenty of other Christmas cookies that you're perfectly content with. And while I think that these cookies are very good, I'm not sure how much they appeal to anyone who doesn't have a history with them.

When I was a child, my paternal grandmother made vast numbers of what she called "leb cookies" for Christmas. Granny was a frugal housekeeper, and her lebkuchen were, unsurprisingly, on the spare side. They did not have much of a spice presence, and if there were nuts or dried fruit in them, it's news to me, and I suspect that she may have used all molasses, and no honey, but it would not have been Christmas without them. She did make them a long time in advance and then store them in giant containers so that by Christmas time, they were plenty soft, and she did press m&ms into some of the cookies, and, well, they were cookies, so all the grandchildren liked them.

Lebkuchen would doubtless have faded from my consciousness had I not married a woman who had a German mother. The first time I ever made lebkuchen, I used my then-wife's recipe, which is very much like the recipe that I pulled from the Internet last week and then improved upon to make this year's lebkuchen. The ex rolled her dough out and then used a rotary cutter with a scalloped edge to cut her lebkuchen into diamond shapes. I have long since abandoned that process in favor of a round cookie cutter, but I still glaze most of my lebkuchen the way that my ex and her mother (but not her mother's mother; when the ex's mother [who had died long before I met the ex] married an American military officer and then came to live in the US, she didn't have any of her mother's recipes, and, if memory serves, she got her recipes for both lebkuchen and springerle from one of the standard American cookbooks. I want to say that it was Betty Crocker, but I would then be so far out on a limb of speculation that, well, you can complete the metaphor as you see fit.) did, with a simple boiled sugar glaze. Why? I'll tell you why: tradition! (I did, in fact, have the lead in my fifth grade class' production of Fiddler on the Roof, but we can perhaps leave the discussion of how that his influenced my later life for another time. I will say, however, that I was as good a ten-year-old Tevye as you're likely to find anywhere.)

Anyway, I'll record here the recipe for the glaze I used, but if you really go so far as to make the lebkuchen yourself, you may want to consider other options. Maybe some confectioner's sugar with enough Grand Marnier stirred in to make something spreadable.

Lebkuchen Glaze

1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup confectioner's sugar

Put the granulated sugar and water in a saucepan, and cover it with a tight lid. Put over a medium-high to high burner for several minutes, or until the sugar has entirely dissolved and the mixture is boiling. Cook to 230 degrees (F), then remove from heat. Stir in the confectioner's sugar.

This glaze is not the easiest thing in the world to work with. The sugar begins recrystallizing almost immediately, and after every two or so sheets of cookies, you'll need to add a little water and bring it back to a boil to make it clear again (if it ever was clear), but I have done it so many times that fussing around with the glaze is kind of fun for me.

Before baking.When you're ready to bake the lebkuchen, start by preheating your oven to 400 degrees. I have finally put a thermometer in my oven, so that I can tell you that my oven was mostly around 390 during the baking. It flirted with 400 on occasion, and it was sometimes down around 375. I have made the cookies plenty of times when I had an oven that really did maintain 400, but as long as you're dealing with a fairly hot oven, you should be okay. You will simply need to calibrate your baking time. The recipe I had said 10-12 minutes. I found that if I did not open the oven at all during the baking, the cookies would be properly done at exactly 12 minutes when baked on half-sheet pans. If you are using dark cookie sheets or very thin cookie sheets, I would recommend that you preheat your oven to 375 to avoid scorching the bottoms.

You will want to use as many cookie sheets as you have. I got out four half-sheet pans, and that worked very well. Once the assembly line got up and running, there'd be one pan next to my pastry marble to receive the freshly rolled and cut dough, one pan baking in the oven, one pan sitting on top of the stove with the cookies out and either just glazed or waiting to receive glaze, and a fourth pan cooling on hot pads on the kitchen table. When the oven goes off, the fourth pan moves farther along the kitchen table, the glazed cookie pan moves onto the hot pans, the oven pan moves on top of the stove, and the raw dough pan moves into the oven. Then I glaze pan two, and remove the cookies from pan four to the giant cookie bowl, and rinse and re-oil pan four so that it becomes pan one again.

I am pretty good at rolling out and cutting lebkuchen, and I can keep all four pans going and still have time leftover to worry about whether the rest of the house is clean enough for the cleaners who are showing up the next day. It takes me about three minutes to roll out and cut the two dozen cookies that go on each sheet pan. But if it takes you longer, just relax. There are only two tasks that are time sensitive: you have to get the cookies out of the oven when they're done, and you have to glaze them while they're still hot so that the glaze will harden correctly.

Anyway, when you're ready to roll out your dough, take the bowl out of the refrigerator and put it on the counter next to your rolling surface of choice. I use an ice cream scoop to remove a blob of dough at a time, but you can use a heavy spoon, assuming both you and your spoons are strong. The dough is very dense, especially when it's very cold.

You will want a substantial amount of flour to assist you in the rolling process. In the past, you may have heard dire warnings about not using too much flour when you were rolling out dough so that you wouldn't end up with something too tough. This warning is unnecessary with lebkuchen. No matter what you do, the lebkuchen are going to be as tough as leather 20 minutes after they're out of the oven, and some excess flour is not going to make any difference in how quickly they soften up once they're in storage. You obviously don't want huge amounts of flour on your cookies when they go into and come out of the oven, but unless you're really overdoing it, the flour will disappear during the baking. If you're worried, you can brush the excess flour off the tops before you put them in the oven.

I roll my lebkuchen to a thickness of about 1/4 inch, and I use a round cookie cutter with a diameter of two inches. You can use a larger cutter, and you can use any shape you want; stars are also traditional. With a two-inch cutter, you can very comfortably put two dozen cookies on a single half-sheet pan. You will want to dip the cutter in the flour before you start cutting the cookies out. I generally push the cutter down, rotate it a quarter turn, pick it up, shake the cookie out onto my other palm, and repeat. When I have eight cookies in my left hand, I put down the cutter and use my right hand to transfer the cookies to the half-sheet pan. In that way, I can fill a sheet with three series of cuts. I take it as a matter of personal pride to be able to pull out the right amount of dough to roll into a sheet that is just large enough to cut out twenty-four cookies, but I advise you not to worry about such matters unless and until you are as batshit insane as I am, and, believe me, that takes years and years of concentrated effort.

Glazed and unglazed lebkuchen side by side on the same pan.  It ain't normal, I tell ya!You want, of course, to have the oven open as little as possible. If you're dexterous, you can pull one pan out of the oven while you put the other one in. I was worried about temperature, so I pulled a pan out quickly, then shut the oven door to let it get back up to temperature while I glazed the batch that had just come out of the oven. This practice doubtless cost me a few minutes, but since I turned out sixteen dozen cookies in 2.5 hours, including preheating, glaze-making, and cooling times, I reckon that I did okay.

That said, these lebkuchen were not the best that I've ever made. Tasting freshly baked lebkuchen is a bit like tasting beaujolais nouveau: you have some idea of what you're going to end up with, but you don't really know unless it's a total disaster. And ten minutes out of the oven, these lebkuchen were pleasantly gingery and with a good overall flavor. Twenty minutes out of the oven, they were mildly spicy rocks. They will develop into fine cookies. They will be this year's lebkuchen ordinaire, and my ordinary standard is pretty high. Still, I felt the absence of allspice and cardamom, and I would have liked more cocoa powder. Above all, I wanted a much more decadent amount of almonds and candied peel. I suspect that the coming weekend will find me making a batch of special lebkuchen. If I can, I will find some candied citron to go along with the candied orange peel. And I will double the proportion of almonds and be absolutely profligate in my use of spices. I will also cut them somewhat thicker, and when they have seasoned for a month or more, I will coat them with dark chocolate. Every other cookie within miles will perish in a wave of bitter envy, and I will laugh. Did I mention that I haven't had much sleep lately?

Right now, I have all of my lebkuchen in my very biggest mixing bowl, which barely holds them. Soon I will transfer them to individual cookie tins, some of which I will hide in unlikely places. Lebkuchen probably don't keep forever (and if you make them with hazelnuts instead of almonds, the nuts will turn rancid within a few months or less), but I have yet to find a counterexample. They will mostly all be eaten during the holiday season, but I will come upon the last hidden tin sometime next spring when the flavors will have evolved and intensified, and it will be a wondrous thing.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Lebkuchen II

Lebkuchen, friends, is not an exact recipe. Lebkuchen is a state of mind.

Ok, I don't have any idea what that means, and it is possible (but only possible, mind you) that my judgment and mode of expression might be affected by last night's events, which included working until after 9:30 and not getting home until 10:30 and deciding (having had, you must realize, no more than five hours of sleep on any of the prior three nights) that it was time to do some cooking and the cooking that I had to do was to make the lebkuchen dough so that the girls and I could bake some lebkuchen the next night, even though lebkuchen dough is not really a quick and easy thing to throw together, particularly if you're working with a weak, cheap-assed food processor that you're only working with because your culinarily territorial partner (who, by the way, has run off to Ethiopia to do some consulting during one of your very busiest work weeks) insists that your Cuisinart is superfluous because his Hamilton Beach has always worked well enough for him so that you spend five minutes watching the almonds and the candied orange peel whirl around and around the food processor bowl without getting actually, you know, processed and then give up and chop them quarter-cup by quarter-cup in the spice grinder. Not that I'm upset or anything. Because I am not easily nonplussed, you know. If (and I'm not saying this actually happened, even though it did), for example, I were to come home and to start assembling my ingredients, and I were to pull out my ziplock bag of candied orange peel, which I had perhaps not dried as thoroughly as I usually do, and I were to notice some unusual coloration on the peel and I were to open it up and take a deep whiff and I were to come to with the dog licking my face and I were to realize that mold had taken possession of my beautiful, beautiful orange peel, I would simply go to my backup batch of orange peel and use that. The screaming and the tears and the general abuse heaped upon various deities and their parentage would not be evidence of my nonplussedness. Nosiree, Bob: I am one cool customer in the kitchen.

Anyway. Whether lebkuchen is a state of mind or not, it is not a recipe simply because it is so many recipes. I have read that there are bakeries in Germany that sell upwards of twenty different kinds of lebkuchen. I, of course, would eat any and all of them. As far as I can tell, the difference has mainly to do with the spice mixture and the percentage of dried fruits and nuts incorporated (the common denominator is that they're all made with honey). There is not a lot of fat in lebkuchen, and the more fruits and (especially) nuts you introduce to the dough, the more quickly the finished cookies will become soft enough to eat. If you don't add any nuts or fruit, then you have an excellent dough for making a lebkuchen house (And let's settle that issue once and for all, shall we? The house that Hansel and Gretel were eating from and that was owned by a witch who had unfortunate tastes was a lebkuchen house. It gets translated as a gingerbread house, but that is a LIE. Are we clear on that?) whose roof might very well still be intact the next time you have to replace the twenty-five year shingles on the roof over your head. At the other end of the scale are your Nurnberger lebkuchen or your oblaten lebkuchen, which can have fruit and nut contents upwards of 30% (you see the percentage proudly displayed on the packages of the richer varieties in the stores when they go on sale in the fall). Oblaten lebkuchen get their name from the thin rice paper wafers that they are baked on. You use those because the dough has too little flour to roll out. They are fantastic, but I very much enjoy the process of rolling, cutting, and baking the cookies, so I try to come down somewhere in the middle, putting in as much fruit and nuts as I can while still keeping the dough rollable.

All lebkuchen go through a similar post-baking evolution. When they are first out of the oven and not entirely cool, they are soft and good, but the spice flavor is not fully developed. Once they cool entirely, they are rocks, and if you need to eat them, you'll be dunking them. Then over time, the begin to soften, and the flavors develop. The length of time they take to return to edibility is a direct result of the amount of fruit and nuts you put in them, and my lebkuchen are usually rich enough that they're good to eat within a week or two. The dough I made last night will make cookies that may take a bit longer because I had fewer almonds in the house than I thought I had, but they will still be fairly rich cookies.

Lebkuchen 2005

1 cup molasses
1 cup honey
1 lemon
3 cinnamon sticks
1 T. whole cloves
2 whole nutmegs
2 whole star anise
3 T. cocoa powder
2 eggs
1 ounce crystallized ginger
1.5 cups whole almonds
1 cup candied orange peel
5.5 cups flour

Either put the honey and molasses in a saucepan and bring to a boil, or put them in a four-cup glass measure and microwave for three minutes on high. Either way, let them cool.

Grate the peel from the lemon and juice the lemon. Grind the spices in your spice grinder. Chop the ginger, almonds and orange peel fine in the bowl of your food processor.

Put the molasses and honey in the bowl of your stand mixer and turn it on to the lowest speed. Add the peel and juice.

Add the remaining ingredients, stirring well after each addition. When you get to the flour, add it a cup or half-cup at a time. If you don't have a splash guard, learn to be very careful and quick with the on-off switch. When the flour is all incorporated, cover the dough with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least four hours and up to a week.

You may not be able to get all of the flour into the dough. I lost track last night of how much I was putting in, and I just kept adding half a cup at a time until the dough was right. You don't want it to be too wet to roll. But you don't want it to be too dry, either. It should still be a little bit sticky when you're done with it. It will get less sticky under refrigeration.

There is, of course, nothing sacrosanct about the spice mixture that I've put in this recipe. If I could have found the allspice last night, I would have added some. Ditto the ground cardamom, but all I had was whole, and I didn't feel like sitting there and picking the seeds out of the pods. I do think you want to be generous with the amounts of the spices. I will usually add more spices and more of each spice than is called for in a recipe, and every year the spice mixture is different, as is the amount of nuts and fruit. It's always good, but some years you have to wait longer for it to be good than in others. Don't, however, forget the cocoa powder. It is not an ingredient in most lebkuchen recipes, and I didn't include it in my own until six or seven years ago when I realized that the lebkuchen were calling out for it. You don't have to use three tablespoons, though. You can use two or four. Three just seemed right last night, but of course, my mind was still a bit addled by lack of sleep and presence of mold. Still, I'm pretty confident that when they're baked and glazed and (maybe) covered with chocolate, they'll be great. I'll let you know.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Black Cake I

Guess how many currants are in the jar and win a prize!
I am, in general, an impromptu cook. I will plan a menu for a party a week or two in advance, but I will almost inevitably change my mind when I start the marketing or, worse yet, when I start the cooking, and what I end up with may be drastically different from the initial plan. This is a practice that has served me well, but it is really not a good strategy for Christmas.

Christmas is, or should be, all about tradition. I am not saying that you have to make the exact same cookies or family meals that your mother made, but I am saying that part of what people like about the holiday is the sense of the familiar, so that if you are good with turkey or goose and the guests at your table are used to that, you may want to think twice before switching over to Thai fish cakes at the last minute. (You can always make the Thai fish cakes another day, and if you do, remember to send me the recipe, okay?).

And, really, it's not like Christmas can just sneak up on you like an unexpected houseguest. You know it's coming, and you know exactly when it's coming, so you've got lots of time to prepare. So you're talking about a lot of project cooking. Foods that are made days, weeks, or months in advance and that improve with the passage of time.

Black Cake is a definite project. Almost all fruitcakes require some period of seasoning after they're baked. It is one of the joys of December to occasionally unwrap the foil from the fruitcakes and pour on a bit more of whatever spirit(s) you're using this year. Black Cake requires a lengthy seasoning even before it becomes batter. Dried fruits are macerated in alcohol for at least two weeks (the upper end of the maceration period is apparently boundless; I know a guy in Dubuque who put a jar of macerating fruits in his pantry back in 1967 and is still waiting for the inspiration to put them into a cake). The end result has little resemblance to the beginning ingredients, which, as you can see from the picture, is probably a good thing.

I reckon that many Americans were first exposed to Black Cake through an article in Gourmet written by Laurie Colwin. The article was later published in her Home Cooking. For years, I moved my collection of Gourmet with me wherever I went, and whenever I made a Black Cake, I'd get out that issue for the recipe. With the advent of, I had assumed that all of the old Gourmet recipes would be available on line, so I finally let my collection go a couple of years ago. Perhaps epicurious has the Colwin Black Cake recipe, but I have not been able to find it there. It is otherwise available online, and that is a very good thing, but in searching for it, you are likely to come across a number of other very similar recipes. And I suppose that's a good thing, too, except that it makes you realize that you have a lot of options, and maybe I didn't need to know that, given my already great inclination to screw around withalter recipes.

I do intend to follow the Colwin recipe. Mostly. What I'm going to play around with is the mixture of dried fruits. Because I'm doubling the recipe, I figure that I get ten pounds of dried fruit in total. Right now I'm up to nine, and what I have in my big plastic jar (the one that has just this week been emptied of the vin de noix that I made in the summer and that I now have six liters or so of in bottles around the house) is

1.5 liter Manischewitz Concord Grape Wine
1.5 liter dark rum
2 pounds pitted prunes
1 pound dried pitted tart montmorency cherries
1 pound dried pineapple chunks
2 pounds Thompson seedless raisins
8 oz. organic candied ginger chunks
2 pounds currants
8 oz. candied orange peel

The instructions tell you to chop the fruit as fine as you can before pouring the alcohol over it to macerate. I have been working a lot this week, and since it had taken me an hour just to get the jar ready for the fruit, I was in no mood to either chop by hand or attempt to make the food processor work on sticky dried fruit. So I poured my wine and rum into the jar and then dumped in the fruit right out of the package. Once it has soaked for a week or so, it should be a relatively easy matter to turn it into mush in the food processor. Or I can find the grinding attachment to my KitchenAid and grind them, which would be silly, but fun somehow.

Even without the tenth pound (and I still don't know what dried fruit I'll use for the last pound; apples? apricots? figs? dates?), I have a lot of fruit macerating in a lot of alcohol (the jar in that picture is about eighteen inches tall). I am going to end up with a lot of black cake.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Oatmeal Cookies

There are days, readers, when you dream of something big. Something revolutionary and complicated and impressive. Something that will amaze your friends and bedevil your enemies. But sometimes, on those days, you come home, and you find that your younger daughter has a field trip the next day, and she needs a bag lunch, and she also needs a snack, and there is nothing remotely snacklike in the house, and you want to at least have cooked something, so you turn to an old standby because, after all, the very last thing you want is for your child to be tromping around the Chesapeake Bay with her classmates and stopping to have the snack you've made and deciding that it, and its maker, are without merit.

I don't really have an oatmeal cookie recipe. There's a recipe in Beat This, and all of the recipes in Beat This are amazing, but, if memory serves, that recipe makes a load of cookies and probably requires more of some ingredients than I have in the house. So I did what I always do: get out the oatmeal box, look at the recipe on it, and decide where to make changes.

As it happens, raisins are the natural enemy of my daughters, so the first change is always to chuck the raisins. And, really, when you're making cookies, there's never any guarantee that the raisins won't burn. Chocolate is always a big hit with L., so in go some chocolate chip cookies. There are no nuts in the recipe, so why not walnuts?

I would also have liked to put in some unsweetened flaked coconut, but I couldn't find it. I especially would have liked to add some peanut butter, but V. stores the peanut butter (which is just Jif or something; it's not even organic) in the refrigerator (why does he do that? I'm sure I don't know; the man has some bizarre culinary habits; I will not even mention what he does to artichokes; trust me, you don't want to know), so that it would be difficult to mix in or even to get out of the jar. I considered using the microwave, but then I remembered peanut allergies, and while it's highly unlikely that any of L.'s classmates have such an allergy (or I would probably have heard about it), any parent in this area who has had children in any school and/or daycare center has been trained to fear peanut allergies like a live third rail. I also considered putting in some dried cherries, but L. is not so much for distinguishing between raisins and things that resemble raisins. Alas.

Anyway, here are the cookies I ended up with. They're pretty good.

Oatmeal Cookies

1 cup walnuts
2 sticks butter, at room temperature
1 cup brown sugar, packed
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 eggs
1 t. vanilla
1.5 cups all-purpose flour
1 t. baking soda
1 t. cinnamon
pinch salt
1.5 cup rolled oats
1 cup chocolate chips

Turn oven to 350 degrees

While the oven is preheating, put the walnuts in a pan and toast them in the oven. Don't let them burn. Set them aside to cool. Break them up a bit with your hands.

Put the butter in your mixer bowl and turn the mixer on. When the butter is well creamed, add the brown sugar. As soon as each ingredient is well combined, add the next. Add the cooled nuts last. Scrape down the bowl with your rubber spatula and make sure the batter is well mixed.

Line your cookie pans (I use half sheet pans) with parchment. Use a two-inch cookie scoop and drop balls on the cookie sheet so that the centers are four inches apart. Put them in the oven for seven minutes, then rotate them and cook for six to eight minutes more, until they are done. If you are baking two sheets at a time, switch the upper and lower pans and rotate them all at the same time. It's almost like juggling.

Let the cookies cool in the pan for a few minutes. Slide the parchment onto a marble or a rack and let cool completely.

This recipe makes three dozen four-inch cookies. If you want smaller cookies, use a smaller scoop and add another cup of rolled oats so that they don't spread out so much, and reduce the baking time. You will, of course, have a much larger number of cookies.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Yet Another Post Without a Recipe

It will probably be a couple of days before I get a chance to cook anything, and that is just as well since I just returned from the dentist where the hygienist talked me into something like $400 worth of something called "scaling," which is meant to get rid of something called "gum disease." I am grateful that I am not a dental hygienist. These people have to be cheerful enough so that you don't kill them for the physical pain without being so cheerful that you kill them for the bad jokes and what certainly appears to be enjoyment of the patient's discomfort.

The hygienist claims that I should be able to eat normally as soon as the topical anesthetic wears off, but I am thinking that the next twenty-four hours might be a good time to reacquaint myself with Jell-O.

I will, however, report that this weekend, I simultaneously cleared space in the refrigerator and made L. happy by making the remaining chocolate truffle dough into truffles. I didn't have time to temper more chocolate, and I wanted L. to be able to help with making them, so I just got out a half-sheet pan and sprinkled a liberal amount of cocoa in it and told her to dust her hands. Then I took out my ice cream scoop and scooped golfball-sized blobs of dough and gave them to L., who rolled them into balls and then rolled them in more cocoa. Those are some big truffles, I tell you what, but I cleared up space in the refrigerator and kept my hands clean all while giving her the chance to work with the ultimate edible Play-Do.

I would very much like to find one of these at a yard sale. V. would probably not be amused, but I reckon I could keep it in the garage and only bring it inside when I needed it. The mechanism of the bread bucket is really no different from the mechanism inside a bread machine. If you keep stirring bread ingredients with something of the right shape, they'll work themselves into a dough. I am not philosophically opposed to bread machines, but I very rarely use mine because I generally don't want to make one loaf of bread. I enjoy kneading dough for a limited amount of time, but getting it to the stage where it can be kneaded is a bit tricky. My KitchenAid will hold no more than enough dough for two loaves. I like to think (and I am no doubt deluding myself) that if I could mix up five or six loaves at a time, I would bake bread on a weekly basis. I probably wouldn't, but I would still like to own a bread bucket. As an alternative, I have thought about running the bread machine just long enough to mix the dough and then repeating that process several times to give me four or five balls of dough, but I have not gotten around to it. I believe that would take at least an hour, though if I do half of the kneading for dough ball 1 while dough ball 2 is in the machine, perhaps I could cut it down a bit. I could also maybe overload the machine since I'm not planning to use it to actually bake the bread. I realize that I'm rambling here, but it keeps my mind off my gums.

I am already behind my ideal schedule for Christmas baking. My ideal schedule is never anywhere close to being realized, though, so I'm probably okay. I may be able to put everything off for one more week. By then, the final tax deadline will have passed, and V. will be on his way to Ethiopia for nearly three weeks. He has retained one of the neighborhood kids to stop by on a daily basis, nominally to make sure the dog is fed and watered since I am often out late at work or at choir practice. I suspect that the boy is, in fact, a mole placed to alert V. if I start to overrun the pantry or the refrigerator with equipment purchases or food preparations. I also suspect, however, that he can be bought off with chocolate. I will dip into the emergency Callebaut stash if need be, but my instincts tell me that a pound of m&ms will do the job nicely.

My notional Christmas food preparation list is quite extensive, but I am happy enough to jettison items when I run short of time. The probability that I will make marzipan, for example, is probably no better than half. Other items, in ascending order of likelihood, include (but are in no way limited to) fudge, springerle, a gingerbread house, rum balls, pfeffernusse, white fruit cake, black cake, and lebkuchen, with the last four items on the list being certainties. When Christmas finally rolls around, I will generally have made ten or so kinds of cookies, but only a few of them remain constant from year to year. I cannot get through the season without making mulled cider, mulled wine and eggnog, but the recipes vary significantly from year to year.

I would like to take Lindy's suggestion and have a Boxing Day party this year. It seems like a day when many of my friends should be available for a party. I have never been to a Boxing Day party, but I presume that one sets out various foods and beverages and then puts a DVD of the Thriller in Manila on the TV. How easy is that?

Sunday, October 02, 2005

A Brief Update on the Potent Potables

The state-of-the-art anapestic bottling facility.
Faithful readers of this site will remember that during the summer I began work on a couple of alcoholic beverages: clementine ratafia and vin de noix. All of the former and some of the latter have been bottled and shelved, after a taste test in which they earned the anapestic seal of approval. V. liked them, too.

Since I didn't post the ratafia recipe earlier, I'm going to post it now.

Clementine Ratafia

6 clementines
1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds
1 cinnamon stick
16 fluid ounces vodka
6 ounces granulated sugar

Bruise the coriander seeds and break the cinnamon stick into several pieces and put them in the bottom of a 24- or 32-ounce glass jar.

Cut the clementines in half and juice them. Pour the juice into the jar.

Remove the fruit and membrane from the peel and cut the peel in strips. Add the strips to the jar.

Add the vodka and the sugar to the jar, screw the lid on it, and shake it well. Put it away in your pantry, and shake it occasionally.

After about two months, strain and bottle the ratafia.

When I first put the ingredients into the jar, I used only four tablespoons of sugar because I didn't want the ratafia to be too sweet. I thought better of that later, and I added enough additional sugar to bring the total amount to six ounces a couple of weeks ago. It had all dissolved when I checked it tonight, so I bottled it. Six ounces turned out to be just about right. The bitterness from the clementine peels balances the sugar very well. The taste is really not very much like anything else I've tasted. The ratafia is definitely cloudy. I am sure that I could make it clear if I wanted, but I prefer to think of it as analogous to the unfined Gewurztraminer that I bought when I was out in Northern California and that arrived at the house this past week. The ratafia certainly doesn't taste cloudy.

When you go to throw away the peels and spices that are caught in your strainer, you will want to do something else with them because they smell really, really good. I couldn't think of anything. If it had been Christmas, I would perhaps have used them to make some spiced wine. If it were colder, I might have just boiled them in a little water to send the aroma through the rest of the house.

I am presently experiencing an unexpected shortage of empty wine and liquor bottles. This is perhaps due to our having tried the Black Box Merlot as our vin de table for the past week or two. It makes a very good table wine, and you certainly can't fault the price, but it leaves no empty bottles in its wake. In addition to drinking wine that comes from a plastic bag, I have not yet had the energy to cut up the fruits for my black cake. The cutting up is not such a big deal, but the finding a suitable container to macerate them in as well as space for that container to sit is something that I've not yet accomplished. As a result, the two rum bottles and the two Manischewitz Concord Grape wine (I know, I know, but that's what Laurie Colwin said they use in Jamaica) bottles are not freed up. The upshot is that I only had one empty wine bottle in which to put some vin de noix this evening. I will have to fix that soon because I don't think it will benefit from any further maceration. (Of course, the container that currently holds the vin de noix would be the ideal container to macerate my black cake fruits in. A detailed statement of the Catch 22 inherent in this situation is left as an exercise to the reader.) It has already picked up plenty of tannin from the immature black walnuts, and, if anything, it errs slightly on the side of too much, so I would just as soon not give it the opportunity to pick up any more of that particular flavor.

Nonetheless, the vin de noix is pretty good. To me it tastes most like a cross between a robust red table wine and a good but inexpensive port. It does have a fair amount of sugar in it, though I used only 2/3 of what the recipe called for. It is possible that the extra sugar would have balanced out some of the tannin, but it is equally possible that I would have ended up with cough syrup, and I have certainly avoided that horror.

Both the ratafia and the vin de noix will make excellent choices to sip at the end of a meal. I will likely end up giving much of the vin de noix away, seeing how I have a lot of it, and I would likely only drink a little at a time. Also, if I don't give it away this year, I won't get to make it again next year, and I have already begun to think of ways to improve the vin de noix. I am not sure that I want to tinker further with the ratafia recipe. It is possible that a small amount of another spice could be added during the maceration period, but it doesn't really taste like it lacks anything right now. In any case, I have many months to change my mind and change it back again. And there is no doubt that I will do so.