Rosemary Brown Sugar Panna Cotta

No sooner had the spiced pumpkin custard and flaky pie crust touched his palate than a shudder ran through him and he stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening.  An exquisite pleasure had invaded his senses, and he ceased to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come, this all-powerful joy? He sensed that it was connected with the taste of the pie, but that it infinitely transcended those savors. Whence did it come? What did it mean?

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My friend K judged a pumpkin pie contest last weekend, and when I asked him what about the winning pie had clinched it for him, he shrugged, with a little smile, and said, “It tasted just like my mom’s.  It brought me back to my childhood.”

In Remembrance of Things Past, Proust was neither the first nor the last to reflect on the connections between eating and memory.  But his narrator’s intensely-felt wave of nostalgia upon eating a madeleine dipped in tea is perhaps one of the most well-known passages in the history of food writing (heavily paraphrased with much humility in my first paragraph).

I haven’t yet read Remembrance of Things Past, but I think about Proust often.  More specifically, I think about his madeleine.  How lucky are we, I think, that the sensory pleasure of eating is made richer by its relation to memory, that not only can we superficially enjoy a delicious gingerbread cookie, hot from the oven, but that we can at the same time enjoy the flood of memories, perhaps the childhood memory of building snowmen in the cold, then sitting by a fire with a steaming mug of cocoa, or the memory of baking cookies for our own children, long since grown up and gone.

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Sticky, dark, and golden, brown sugar is one of those ingredients that gives me “exquisite pleasure.”  As a child I was an inimitable cookie-baking helper, instilled at a very young age with the importance of compacting brown sugar into the measuring cup; pressing it in with my small fingers, then dumping it into the bowl and watching the sugar slowly decompress, fall all over itself, like a crystalline creature that just can’t keep itself together.

My relationship with rosemary is newer, but assuredly growing to the same nostalgic proportions.  In Oregon, rosemary flourishes year-round, so the sharp piney scent that accompanies plucking a sprig or two is never far away.  And while brown sugar, too, is always in my pantry, it seems that I reach for both ingredients most often when the skies are dark and gray.

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Panna cotta with fresh herbs is a far cry from the pumpkin-shaped cookies I stamped out as a child, but this dessert makes me feel nostalgic all the same.  Maybe I’ve grown into a woman who steps outside her back door to fetch a sprig of rosemary, and who serves her desserts in quilted mason jars, but I still linger over the brown sugar as I measure it out, still enthralled by its glittering grains.

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I like the ease and aesthetic of serving custards in half-pint mason jars, but if you’d like to serve your panna cotta on a plate or bowl, use custard cups or ramekins and lightly oil the dishes before pouring.  Once chilled, run a sharp knife around the edge to loosen, and tip out onto your serving dish.

Rosemary Brown Sugar Panna Cotta
2 C heavy cream
¼ C brown sugar
½ vanilla bean, or 1 t vanilla extract
3” sprig of rosemary
2 ¼ t powdered gelatin
3 T cold water

Combine cream, sugar, rosemary, and vanilla bean in a small saucepan.  Heat over medium-low and stir until sugar is melted.  Remove from heat, cover, and let sit 30 minutes to infuse.

In a large bowl, mix the gelatin powder with cold water and let sit 5 minutes.  Remove the rosemary and vanilla bean from the cream mixture and gently reheat.  Pour the warm cream over the gelatin and stir until gelatin is dissolved.  Pour into containers and chill until firm, 2-4 hours.

Serves 4.

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German-style Pretzels

The first Oktoberfest was a wedding celebration.  No wonder it’s basically a giant party where one is expected to consume large quantities of beer and food.

It’s also held in Munich at the end of September, so that the final days are in the first week of October.  In this regard, the Oktoberfest I am planning with a friend next weekend is woefully inaccurate; but I think we can make good on the beer and food part.IMG_2074 color correct

It really all came about because her husband, M, has become quite the connoisseur of homemade mustard.  Naturally, I invited myself over to taste some of the many flavors he has developed over the past year or so.  And, as is wont to happen with people who love food the way we do, one thing led to another, and now we’re hosting our very own celebration of the 1810 wedding of Crown Prince Ludwig and Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen.  What can I say, we’re a sentimental bunch.

As we drew up the list of necessary foods (sauerkraut, bratwurst, cheeses, pie), someone made the suggestion to order pretzels from an excellent local German bakery, Fressen.  And, as is wont to happen with someone who loves food the way that I do, I immediately scoffed at that notion and insisted that I would make the pretzels myself.IMG_2084 color correct

I have never made pretzels before but I do know that traditionally they are dipped in lye to achieve their deep brown sheen.  This sounded like the kind of chemistry experiment I wasn’t willing to attempt in my kitchen.  Luckily, my friend the baker, who has yet to disappoint me when I send him strange and urgent requests, was able to turn up a recipe that I could adapt to home-scale proportions.

Rolling the dough out just right to achieve the German pretzel’s trademark fat belly and skinny arms may take a bit of practice; but rest assured that your pretzels will be delicious no matter what shape they take.

I don’t have a homemade mustard recipe yet so you’ll just have to make do with whatever you have in the fridge; but maybe this weekend I’ll learn a thing or two at Oktoberfest, and I’ll let you know.

German-style Pretzels
To make 15 3-oz. pretzels:

16 oz. water, lukewarm
2 ½ t active dry yeast
3 T sugar
5 C flour
1 ¾ t salt

Baking soda solution:
64 oz. water
2 t salt
2 T + 2 t baking soda

In a large bowl, combine the water, yeast, and sugar.  Let sit 5 minutes.  In a separate bowl combine the flour and salt.  Add the flour and salt to the yeast mixture and stir to combine.  Knead until the dough passes a windowpane test*; if using an electric mixer, mix with the dough hook attachment for 5-8 minutes; if mixing by hand, gather the dough into a ball and knead on a lightly-oiled surface about 10 minutes.

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Roll only the ends of the pretzel, leaving a fat section of dough in the center.

Lightly oil a large bowl and let the dough proof, covered, about 45 minutes.  On a lightly-oiled surface, cut the dough into 3-oz. pieces.  If you don’t have a kitchen scale, divide the dough into three pieces, and then divide each piece into five.  Roll each piece of dough out to about 20 inches, leaving a fat bulge in the middle.  Bring the ends around to the inside, give them a twist, and press the twisted ends into the pretzel’s belly (see the top photo for reference).

Preheat oven to 475 and prepare a sheet pan with a layer of parchment paper.  Bring the baking soda solution to a boil and drop the pretzels in a few at a time until they float to the surface, about 30 seconds.  Lift the pretzels out with a large slotted spoon and place on the prepared sheet pans.  Sprinkle with coarse salt.  Bake until dark brown, about 20 minutes, and cool on a wire rack.

*The windowpane test means that when you gently stretch a small piece of dough between your fingers, the gluten bonds are strong enough to allow the dough to form a thin, translucent screen rather than ripping.

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Building a Sourdough Starter

My sourdough starter turned one last month.

This is the third or fourth starter I’ve made, and the only one to last longer than a few months.  So obviously I’m doing something right—but it took a few years of trial and error to get here. 

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Sourdough walnut loaves

Building a sourdough starter is easy; keeping it going is a little harder, especially if you don’t have time to bake every few days.  But once you’re attuned to all the variables that can make your starter too sour or not sour enough, too bubbly or not bubbly at all, you’ll wonder how you ever relied on commercial yeast to make bread.

There are several ways to build a sourdough starter, but the technique that I’ve settled on as the most reliable comes from Dan Lepard’s “The Handmade Loaf.”  He outlines a 5-day build that utilizes the natural yeasts found on fruit skins, the lactic bacteria in live-culture yogurt, and a little kick-start from rye flour:

Day 1:
1/4 C water at room temp.
2 t rye flour
2 t bread flour
2 t currants or raisins, organic (I’ve also used just-picked organic grapes to good effect)
2 t live culture yogurt

Mix all in a jar and leave at room temperature (68-72°) for 24 hours.

Day 2:
1/4 C water at room temp.
2 t rye flour
2 t bread flour

Stir in and leave at room temperature for 24 hours.

Day 3:
1/2 C water at room temp.
4 t bread flour
4 t rye flour

Stir in and leave at room temperature for 24 hours.

Day 4:
1/2 C water at room temperature
1 C bread flour

Remove 3/4 of the mixture and add the water.  Pour through a tea strainer to remove the raisins, then put back in the jar and stir in the flour.  Leave at room temperature for 24 hours.

Day 5 and onwards:
1/2 C water at room temperature
1 C bread flour

Remove 3/4 of the mixture before all feedings.

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Bubbly sourdough starter

What’s happening in your jar

Yeast are the first colonizers of your wild starter.  If you feed your starter at a high proportion and do not let it ferment very long (12-24 hours), your starter will have good lift but not much sour flavor.  Lactic bacteria move in second, and they are what gives your starter a sour flavor–though this can easily shift to vinegary if you’re not careful.  If this happens, you can generally save the starter by providing it frequent high proportion feedings, and holding it at a cooler temperature.  The more sour your starter, the less lift it generally has.

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Sourdough potato rosemary loaves

By high proportion feedings, I mean that you should remove almost all of the starter in the jar and replace it with a large amount of flour and water.  This helps to rebalance the yeast/bacteria community.

You can adjust the flour/water ratio to your preference; drier mixtures will ferment more slowly and will have more structure to hold in the yeast.  I typically feed at about a 1:1 ratio.

Storage

I keep my starter in a quart jar covered with a cloth napkin held in place with elastic.  You want to make sure you cover your starter with something permeable to the air so the wild yeasts can get in easily.  I find that my starter needs to be held at a fairly low room temperature to get the flavor and activity I’m looking for: generally no higher than 70 degrees.  In between uses, I keep it in the fridge, and always feed it freshly right before chilling it.  Take it out of the refrigerator several days before you want to use it and feed it at a high proportion daily for 2-3 days.

You can also hold your starter in the freezer during long hiatuses.  Be sure to transfer it into a freezer-safe container with enough room to expand.  Defrost at room temperature and start feeding immediately.  It may take a few weeks of regular feeding to build it back to the flavor you want, but have confidence that it will come back.

A word about flours

Different flours will change the taste and activity level of your starter.  Rye flour produces a very active starter.  This is a good way to jump-start your culture but also means you need to be more vigilant if you choose to feed exclusively with rye.

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Sourdough pancakes

You can make your starter 100% all-purpose flour, 100% whole wheat flour, 100% rye flour, or any combination–it just depends on what you’re going to put it in.  You can always transition your starter into a different flour type by primarily feeding it a different kind of flour for a few days.  If I’m feeding my starter white flour, I use bread flour, which has a higher gluten content than all-purpose flour.  This gives your starter, and hence your dough, a little more structure.

When building a starter for a rye bread, you may want to consider using bread flour, since rye has a much lower gluten content than wheat.  But if your goal is 100% rye bread, transition your starter with rye for a few days beforehand.

Now your turn…

Working with wild creatures is never easy, yeast and bacteria included.  Your starter may not always smell sweet and fresh.  Your bread will not always rise.  And that’s okay–that still happens to me.  It even happens in commercial artisan bakeries.  And every time it does happen, I learn a little more about time and temperature, and about patience and discipline, and my starter and I get a little better about communicating with each other.  Here’s to many more years of a beautiful relationship.

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Bourbon Cherry Hand Pies

We have a pretty small freezer, and for someone like me this can be a bit of a problem.  In any given season, you will probably find:

  • Partially-used bags of no fewer than eight and no more than twelve different flours
  • Sauces of all colors frozen into ice cubes, from tomato paste and peanut sauce, to green curry paste and pesto
  • At least one ball of some sort of dough, frozen with the intention of whipping it out at a moment’s notice to impress guests (who have yet to materialize)
  • Recycled yogurt containers full of various soups and broths, well-labeled (and well-hidden behind bags of flour)
  • Several bags of vegetable trimmings, haphazardly frozen on the off-chance that they will be reused in some future soup
  • Gallon bags bursting to the seams with berries, mostly to satisfy A’s compulsion to freeze berries of all kinds, which he will promptly forget about as soon as apple season begins

On top of all that, we now have to make sure there’s room every other month for our 10-lb. delivery of meat from Moomaw Farm.

So occasionally a kitchen project is determined by how to create as much empty space in the freezer with as little effort as possible.  Thus it happened that today, as fall announced its undeniable presence with blustery downpours, I found myself baking with decidedly unseasonal sour cherries.

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Sour, or pie, cherries have a limited growing season, and since they don’t travel well, they need to be used quickly.  I managed to get my hands on 4 lbs. of fresh cherries back in July, but was about to head out of town, so I pitted and froze them all immediately.  And as you might imagine, they got a bit lost in our crowded freezer—that is, until I was musing aloud that I might make a pie soon, and A asked for a cherry pie.

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Well, I’ll do you one better: twelve cherry pies!  Hand pies, that is; smaller than a turnover (so you can eat two without feeling guilty), and with quite a large pie crust-to-filling ratio.  Hand pies really are the cream of the crop; both your crust and your filling have to be top-notch to stand up to that ratio.  That little bit of filling has to be immensely satisfying, and the crust needs to be so flaky and flavorful that you don’t mind eating a handful of it.

Of course, twelve hand pies are still more than A and I can (or should) eat in a couple days.  So six of these went back into the freezer, to be baked off some other rainy afternoon when A least expects it.  And I made more cherry filling than I needed, so that went back in the freezer as well, and it really doesn’t seem any emptier than it was this morning….

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Bourbon Cherry Hand Pies
Crust:
2 1/2 C flour
2 T sugar
1 t salt
1/2 C cold butter, diced
1/2 C cold shortening, diced
½+ C cold water

Combine flour, salt, and sugar in a large bowl.  With a fork or pastry cutter, cut in the butter and shortening until mixture is crumbly.  Quickly work dough into a ball, then divide into 12 portions and refrigerate at least 30 minutes.

Filling:
1 1/3 lbs. fresh pitted pie cherries (or 1 ½ 14.5-oz cans)
1/4 C sugar
1 T bourbon
1/2 t orange bitters
1/4 t vanilla
1-2 T arrowroot powder, or 3 T flour or cornstarch

Combine all ingredients except the arrowroot in a saucepan and bring to a simmer.  Cook until cherries break down, 10-15 minutes.  Lower heat and add the arrowroot powder, one teaspoon at a time, mixing completely after each addition to avoid lumps.  When syrup has thickened, remove from heat and cool completely.

Preheat oven to 375° and prepare a baking sheet with parchment paper.  Set a small bowl of water by your work space.  On a floured surface, roll each ball into 5-6” circle.  Place 1 heaping tablespoon of filling in each circle (resist the urge to add more or you won’t be able to seal it cleanly), dab edge with water, and crimp shut.  Slice off any ragged edges.  Place on prepared baking sheet.  Cut slits to vent, and sprinkle the tops with sugar.  Keep chilled until ready to bake.  Bake until golden, about 20 minutes, and cool on a wire rack.

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Grape Focaccia

Grapes can change the world.

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When I was a little girl in Massachusetts, we didn’t eat grapes.  It had to do, I knew, with California, and the people there, and by association it had to do with my grandparents and cousins, and their neighbors and all the people they knew.  So even though every other kid at school had grapes in their lunch box and a bowl of grapes on the kitchen table at home, I didn’t mind being different and not eating grapes because I knew it was important to all of those people in California whom I cared about.

As I grew older, I came to understand that my family was participating in the United Farm Workers’ grape boycott to protest the use of toxic pesticides, which were dangerous to the health of farm workers and their families, most of whom were of Mexican, Filipino, or other Southeast Asian descent.  Union organizer César Chávez called the boycott the year I was born, and my mom responded, for which I will always be proud of her.

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That boycott was not ended by the UFW until 2000, and in those sixteen intervening years they succeeded in eliminating some of the most toxic pesticides from use in California’s grape fields.

In the year 2000, the farm I work for, Persephone Farm, was already certified organic.  The farmers market we sell at, Hollywood Farmers Market, was entering its fourth season.  It’s not much of a stretch to suggest that we wouldn’t be here, that this thriving culture of farmers markets every day of the week and farm-direct restaurant deliveries, of community-supported agriculture and Portland’s intense pride in what is locally-grown and locally-produced, wouldn’t exist if the UFW and other labor organizers of the 1960s and 1970s hadn’t shown consumers that we are active participants in our food system.

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I remember the thrill I felt when I first saw table grapes at the farmers market.  I shouldn’t have been surprised; Oregon’s wine industry has grown by leaps and bounds in the last decade, so it’s only natural for produce farmers to cash in on the same advantages of our terrain and climate.  Even so, grapes will always feel exotic and special to me, and every time I buy them my thoughts wander back up the supply chain to the hands that picked them, and I wonder whether they were healthy and well-paid, and whether their children will have the opportunities to educate themselves that I’ve had.

Today I am also thinking of other hands, of those of my mother and father, and how they have shaped me.  When they made the simple decision to stop buying grapes in 1984, they could never have known how that action would impress and influence their infant daughter.

You never know who’s paying attention.  All of our decisions ripple outwards and affect those around us, and we have the opportunity to model through our actions the world we are striving for.  By thoughtfully acting on our values, we can change the behavior of our friends, parents, children, coworkers—and together, we can change the world.

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I’ve reduced the sugar here since I like my sweet breads more bread than sweet; but if you want to go sweeter, top with an extra tablespoon of sugar before baking, and dust with confectioner’s sugar when out of the oven.

This focaccia’s slight tang made me yearn for an arugula salad and perhaps a mild blue cheese.

Grape Focaccia
Adapted from Ripe by Nigel Slater

2 ½ t active dry yeast
1 ½ C warm water, about 90°
1 T sugar
1 t salt
3 ¼ C bread flour
10 oz. red table grapes (about 1 1/2 C)
1 T sugar
2 T olive oil

In a large bowl, combine the yeast, water, and 1 T sugar.  Mix and let sit for 5 minutes.  Stir in the salt, and add the flour.  Mix with a wooden spoon then turn out onto a well-floured surface.  Knead about 5 minutes, or until the dough is smooth and elastic.  It will still feel slightly wet and sticky.  Form the dough into a ball, place in a floured bowl, cover with a towel, and leave in a warm place to double in size, about 1 hour.

Prepare a shallow baking pan, about 12” in diameter.  Punch down the dough to let out some of the gas, and turn out onto a floured surface.  Gently knead half the grapes into the dough.  I accomplished this by taking a handful at a time and folding the dough over the grapes, then kneading a few times to disperse them.  Spread the dough out in the baking pan and pat into a large rectangle.  If the dough keeps springing back, let it rest a few minutes before shaping.  Dimple the surface with your fingertips and scatter the remaining grapes on top.  Cover and return to a warm place to let rise.

Preheat oven to 425°.  When dough is almost doubled in size, sprinkle with olive oil and 1 T sugar.  Bake 35-40 minutes, or until top is puffed and golden.  Let cool 10 minutes before slicing; serve warm.

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Eggplant Zucchini Quiche with Roasted Pepper Gremolata

“I think we have all the essence of summer in our fridge,” I said to A earlier this week.  He was unimpressed, but I’ve spent the last several days musing on the almost sacred combination of eggplants, sweet peppers, corn, summer squash, and fresh herbs.

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I think we all have a dish or two that requires ingredients of such seasonality that we look forward to it all year, make it once or twice, and then before we know it the season is over.  For me, eggplants and red peppers are never around long enough.  I make the first baba ganoush of the summer with such fanfare that you’d think it were a much fancier and more complicated affair.  Before September is over each year, I roast a pile of red peppers, peel them, freeze them individually, and pack them away carefully into Ziploc bags to be doled out judiciously into winter’s stews and casseroles.

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But one of my goals for this year has been to not let any fruit or vegetable pass me by; to take note of each food’s coming and going, and to appreciate it fully while it is here.  So at the farmers market this past weekend, I was driven by forces stronger than myself to collect a rainbow of summer produce, not knowing towards what end.

It simply wouldn’t do to merely cook these vegetables individually throughout the week; a steamed ear of corn here, a sauteed zucchini there, a sprinkling of basil in a tomato salad.  No; a full and honest celebration of the late summer bounty required that the vegetables be married in one dish.  There were obvious choices: ratatouille, various summer vegetable tarts, with pesto or without.  But I wanted something a little out of the ordinary, and more importantly, something that didn’t rely on tomatoes, since A is, while not perhaps their nemesis, certainly not a fan.

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I settled on that most manly of dishes, the quiche.  A superbly crumbly crust of whole wheat and cornmeal provided a deep, nutty foundation for the tender eggplant and zucchini.  A hint of garlic and basil upped the summer quotient exponentially, merely suggesting pesto when combined with a dusting of Pecorino Romano.

For a brief moment I wondered if adding a garnish would be gilding the lily–then thankfully dispensed with that notion in favor of imitating nature.  If bell peppers, eggplant, and zucchini all ripen at the same time, alongside nodding stems of basil and parsley, then surely we are meant to eat them together.

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A gremolata is a chopped garnish with a base of lemon and parsley, and here I’ve relegated those flavors to the background and focused on the sweet acidity of roasted yellow and red peppers.  A spoonful of capers helps the gremolata cut through the rich quiche filling.  I think this would also pair wonderfully with a lightly flavored fish such as halibut, or spooned over some whole roasted tomatoes.  Just don’t try feeding one to A.

This crust is more delicate than a typical pie dough because it contains no white flour; the sharp edges on the cornmeal and the wheat bran inhibit gluten formation, which means the dough will tear more easily.  If pie dough makes you uncomfortable to begin with, use a traditional white flour recipe instead, like this one.

Eggplant Zucchini Quiche

Crust:
1/2 cup cornmeal
3/4 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
5 T cold butter, cubed
3-4 T ice water

Filling:
1 red onion, diced
1 small eggplant, diced
1 medium zucchini
1 clove garlic, minced
2 T chopped basil
1/3 C grated Pecorino Romano or Parmesan cheese
3 eggs
½ C whole milk
½ t salt
Pepper

Preheat oven to 375° and lightly oil a 9″ pie pan.

To make the crust, combine the cornmeal, whole wheat flour, and salt in a large bowl.  With a fork or pastry cutter, cut in butter until well mixed and crumbly.  Add ice water one tablespoonful at a time, using the fork to mix in.  The amount of water you need will vary depending on the absorbency of your cornmeal and flour.  When dough just comes together, pat into a disc, wrap in plastic, and chill at least 15 minutes.

On a lightly oiled surface, roll out the dough to ¼” thickness.  Carefully use the rolling pin to lift the dough onto the pie pan.  Press into the pan and patch any cracks with extra dough.  Finish the edges as you like; I tend to leave my savory pie crusts rustic and unfinished.

Bake the crust for 12-15 minutes to dry it out.  Make sure to remove it from the oven before the bottom begins to puff.

To make the filling, begin by sauteing the onions in a pan big enough to fit all the vegetables.  Start off with more oil than you would normally use, as the zucchini and eggplant will soak it up.  When the onions are softened, after about 5 minutes, add the eggplant, zucchini, and garlic.  Stir well to combine and saute until the vegetables are just tender.  Transfer to a mixing bowl and add the basil and half of the cheese.  Let cool slightly.

In a small bowl, combine the eggs, milk, salt, and pepper.  Spread the vegetable mixture evenly over the pie crust.  Pour the egg mixture over the vegetables and top with the remaining cheese.  Bake at 375° for 30-40 minutes, until top is golden and puffed.

Roasted Pepper Gremolata
1 small yellow bell pepper
1 small red bell pepper
Zest of 1 lemon, grated
1 T capers
2 t parsley, minced

Roast peppers over an open flame on the stovetop or under the broiler.  Turn occasionally to blacken and blister on all sides.  Once blackened and soft, place peppers in a plastic bag with a damp paper towel.  Seal the bag to let them steam.  When cool enough to handle, peel, core, and chop finely.

Combine chopped peppers with lemon zest, capers, and parsley in a small bowl, and serve a spoonful with each slice of quiche.

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