There it was

My grandmother had a trick for finding things that she had misplaced. She would take a drinking glass down from the cupboard and turn it upside down on the kitchen table. While I can’t vouch for the efficacy of this technique, I can tell you that Grandma never seemed to misplace anything for long. Maybe I should have followed her example when, earlier this month, two inferior cakes stripped me of my baking mojo and spirited it away to who knows where. But instead of flipping a glass, I flipped a cast-iron pan to find what had gone missing. Curled up between caramel-drenched folds of pâte brisée and bronzed, tender pears, there it was. My baking mojo was back. Yeah, baby!

I’ve had tarte Tatin on the brain ever since October when, on a visit home to Ohio, my mother gifted me a Le Creuset skillet that she found hibernating in the basement. Squeezed between a few new pairs of socks from an aunt who sees it as her personal responsibility to clothe my 29-year-old toes, the skillet fit perfectly in my carry-on. It’s a beauty of a pan: enameled cast-iron, bright orange, and heavy enough to take out a flight attendant or two with a swift blow to the head, or so the TSA agents feared. They inspected the specimen with the utmost care, and after much huddling and murmuring on their part, and hand-wringing and innocent smiling on my part (“I’m going to make a tarte Tatin! Tee hee.”), they waved us through to our gate. Back in Boston, apple season was in full swing, and I had every intention of tackling a tarte Tatin tout de suite. But somehow, I got distracted. I churned out pandowdies, pies, sauces, and crumbles galore. I even made a couple of right-side-up tarts. Meanwhile, the tarte Tatin recipe that I had once eyed so longingly languished, forgotten in a pile of papers on my desk.

By February, more pears than apples line the basket by our fridge. The D’Anjous have been particularly fine this year, and have earned a permanent slot on our weekly shopping list. Last week, I was banging around in the cabinet when a certain orange skillet called out from behind the mixing bowls. I knew just what to do. Eli would be swinging by the Whole Foods on his way home from work that day, and I e-mailed him a one-line addendum to our list:

Please pick up three extra pears. (I have an idea.)

That evening, I cored, peeled, and halved the pears, dug a lump of pâte brisée from the freezer and, at long last, placed my orange cast-iron skillet on the stovetop. Over a medium flame, half a stick of butter sizzled, softened, and sank into a frothy golden puddle. I added sugar, and stirred until the mixture resembled one of those all-natural body scrubs that go for $30 a tub. When the butter and sugar began to color and smell faintly of toffee, I nestled the pears into the pan, gently pressed them into the amber syrup, and dusted them with cinnamon and ginger. The caramel lapped at the edges of the pears and bubbled up between them, all the while deepening in color. Then, I set the pan by the window to cool.

I rolled out the pâte brisée into a cold, canvas-like sheet, draped it over the sticky spiced pears, now cooled, tucked the edges into the skillet, and slid the whole thing into the oven. When it emerged, I waited several torturously long minutes, covered the pan with a large dinner plate, held my breath, and carefully flipped the tart. Only when I lifted the skillet from the plate did I remember to exhale. It was beautiful. The pears were glassy and shining up through the translucent caramel glaze. All around them, bits of chewy, candied sugar clung to the crust. I was, as they say, cautiously optimistic. I had been fooled before, so it was only natural that I crossed all of my fingers and toes and paused for a moment of concentrated hoping before I raised the fork to my mouth. The deep caramel flavor hit my tongue and then, as the spin class instructor at my gym likes to say during cool down, it was time for my victory lap.

I’m going to strap on the muzzle at this point because, honestly, I cannot condone your reading even a single sentence more when there's pear tarte Tatin to be made. (Except for the recipe. You should read that. Definitely.)

Pear Tarte Tatin
Adapted from Gourmet, November 2003, where it was adapted from a recipe by Betty Caldwell

This recipe is similar to a traditional tarte Tatin, only it’s made with pears instead of apples. On my second go-around with this recipe, I added a dusting of ginger, and I highly recommend it. The ginger here is not overpowering. It pipes up with a mere whisper of spice, just enough to cut the sweetness of the caramelized sugar and the pears. The tarte is also lovely without the ginger, so I’ve listed it here as an optional ingredient.

3-4 large firm-ripe pears (The original recipe calls for Bosc; I used D’Anjou. In my 9-inch skillet, there was room enough for three halved pears.)
½ stick (1/4 cup) unsalted butter
½ cup sugar
½ tsp cinnamon
½ tsp ginger (optional)
Your favorite pâte brisée (I would stay away from anything too sweet. I used half a recipe of Martha’s pâte brisée.)

Core, peel, and halve the pears. Over a medium flame, melt the butter in a 9 or 10-inch cast-iron skillet. Add the sugar, and stir to form a grainy paste (something that may or may not bring on the urge to exfoliate, as I mentioned, above). Arrange the pears, cut sides up, in the skillet with the wide, hippy parts of the pears at the rim. Sprinkle the pears with the cinnamon and ginger, and cook until the sugar mixture caramelizes and turns a deep amber. I let it cook for about 15-20 minutes, tilting the skillet every now and then, and scooching it around on the burner to ensure that the sugar caramelizes evenly. Let the pears and caramel cool completely in the skillet.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Roll out the pâte brisée into a round large enough to cover the skillet, and drape it over the pears. Tuck the edges of the dough into the inside rim of the skillet. I haven’t had any problems with the liquid bubbling over during baking, but just to be safe, I would suggest placing the skillet on a baking sheet before sliding it into the oven. Bake for 30-35 minutes, until the crust is golden brown.

Let the tarte cool in the skillet for 5 minutes. Then, place a plate (slightly larger than the skillet) over the skillet and, using pot holders to hold the skillet and plate tightly together, invert the tarte onto the plate. Serve the tarte warm or at room temperature.

Serves 6.


So far up

You know what? You’re great. I show up here with nothing but a subpar ginger cake and some indulgent psychobabble, and instead of complaining, you say all kinds of nice and encouraging things. I think you’ll be happy to hear that things are looking up in the kitchen. So far up, in fact, that my neck is beginning to cramp.

As I mentioned in the comments yesterday, I recently pulled something sweet from the oven that is eminently worthy of your attention. Unlike the more elusive (and ultimately disappointing) cakes that have been lurking around these parts of late, this beauty is undeniably delicious, and it told me so straight away. What’s more, I have a feeling that I know how to make it even better. I’m going to give it another go tonight, and I’ll report back before the week is out. I already have a few dazzling photographs of the first run that I could show you, but I feel that posting them without a recipe would be cruel. I may boss friends and family members around the kitchen from time to time, and be prone to cake-induced fits of frustration and self-doubt, but cruel, I am not. So I’m going to ask you to sit tight, but not for long. You deserve a treat, friends, and I mean to deliver.

In the meantime, I thought that you might like to see some photos from the dinner out that I mentioned in my last post. It was a celebration in honor of my friend, Mary. Mary is a writer, an artist, and a triathlete. She’s the kind of friend who sends frame-worthy homemade Valentines in the mail, and drives up to Vermont to visit you in the hospital when, out of nowhere, your brain explodes. Mary is also a first-rate foot masseuse and – though she’s been known to deny it – a copy machine whisperer. (You know you are, Mary.) There are about a million and one reasons to celebrate Mary, but on this particular night, we gathered to celebrate her birthday. We went to a restaurant in the South End called The Butcher Shop. It was a special night and, as if inspired by the knock-out birthday girl herself, it was beautiful.

Here are some of my favorite shots from the roll. As usual, you can click on the images to see them larger. Apologies to those of you who may have already seen these photos elsewhere. You can have an extra slice of dessert tomorrow to make up for it, okay?

Have a great day, everyone.


My tried and trues

I’m not usually one to point fingers, but this week, the blame for my absence rests squarely on the ginger-scented shoulders of the cake you see here.

It looks just about perfect, doesn’t it? Near-black with molasses. A moist and tender crumb. Cinnamon. Cloves. Black pepper. And to top it all off, several ounces of fresh, grated ginger. As my mother-in-law might say, “What could be wrong with a cake like that?” I have no idea, Sarah. No idea. For all of my conviction that this cake was decidedly off, I could find not a scrap of evidence to prove it. I’m not even entirely convinced that it wasn’t perfect. Loath as I am to embrace this possibility, it could be that I simply didn’t like it. That’s a hard thing for me to admit.

It was sometime back in 2006, I think, when my dad explained to me as gently as he could that “some people just aren’t going to like you,” no matter what you say or don’t say, do or don’t do. It’s the “he’s just not that into you” of fatherly wisdom. But what my dad never told me, and I’m finally beginning to figure out for myself, is that sometimes, I will be the “some people,” and no matter how springy the crumb, no matter how fiery the ginger on the tongue, a cake – or any number of things, really – may turn up now and again that, for reasons impossible to articulate, I just. don’t. like.

I’m not sure why, but for me, this realization is a much harder blow to my psyche than the fact that I (gasp) may not be the proverbial apple of every eye that glances my way. Don’t get me wrong. When I’m reading the paper, or a book, or watching a movie, and I come face to face with a nice juicy flaw, I’m the first to pounce. I’ll tell you precisely what’s wrong and precisely what’s right. If Eli’s around to egg me on (he’s a feisty little critic himself; I love it), I’ll sink my teeth into the “critical” part of critical thinking and run. (Have I mentioned that Virginia Heffernan is one of my heroes?) But when evil lurks behind a curtain of seeming perfection and refuses to show itself, it’s maddening. MADDENING! And suddenly, I’m back at the table, fork in hand, trying desperately to convince myself with a third slice that, actually, I loooove this ginger cake. Even when I don’t.

Had this ginger cake been the one and only letdown last week, I would have pulled myself up by my apron strings, greased another cake pan, and fired up the oven for plan b. But as it happens, this promising cake was the result of having already done just that when a different cake, a buttermilk spice cake with brown sugar icing, flopped earlier in the week. Like its replacement, the buttermilk spice cake appeared to be everything I had hoped for but, for whatever reason, fell flat. I didn’t even bother to snap a picture of the sorry thing.

With two failed cakes already on my conscience, I decided to back away slowly from my list of must-try recipes, and turn instead to my tried and trues. I dipped hungrily into the archives of Sweet Amandine and, since we last met, I’ve prepared two soups, one tomato, one carrot and fennel; a lemon tart; Eli’s roast chicken (okay, I didn’t make it, but I ate it); two batches of buttermilk biscuits; a tray of salted chocolate almond toffee; an olive oil citrus cake; eggs over anything and everything; and broccoli salad. I’ve enjoyed a lovely meal out to celebrate the birthday of my friend, Mary; slurped and sucked my way through at least half a dozen oranges and grapefruits; and gnawed the last bits from the rind of a very fine hunk of Gouda that followed Eli home one day. On Sunday, I indulged in a first-rate Swiss cheese, spinach, and mustard sandwich. It was considerably less blurry than it appears.

All of this hopping around in the archives and citrus slurping and slapping together of sandwiches made for some very good eating but, sadly, has left me without a recipe to share with you today. I’m sorry. But it turns out that a week or so with my tried and trues was just what I needed to get my kitchen legs back. I’ve got some new recipes on deck that I can’t wait to try. I’ll report back, soon.


Rice cereal supreme

There is nothing that inspires more terror and hope in the kitchen than an overripe banana. On the one hand, those things are nasty, and getting nastier by the second. They’re speckled and brown and clammy to the touch which, now that I’ve typed that, sounds like the profile of some rare dermatological disease. But friends, beneath that shriveled skin and sickly-sweet smell is a banana-shaped package of pure potential. There’s a smoothie in there, or a crumb-topped bread or, when the cold sneaks in through the window frames and insists on staying for breakfast, there’s rice cereal supreme.

I have no idea when I started calling this meal “rice cereal supreme,” or what, exactly, even makes it “supreme,” but I do know that it sounds a lot better than “baby food for grownups” which, as Eli likes to remind me, is basically what it is. To me, mashing together a banana, hot rice cereal, and a few dashes of cinnamon and nutmeg feels undeniably “supreme” and, dictionary definitions of the word be damned, I call it like I see it.

Unlike oatmeal, which is overwhelmingly delicious when made on the stovetop and underwhelmingly blah when made in the microwave, hot rice cereal can go either way without much noticeable difference. I opt for the microwave, and while the cereal spins, I peel and mash my banana, top it with spices, and squish it all together with a fork. When the timer beeps, I simply scrape the banana concoction into the bowl, stir, top with walnuts, and devour. I fear that all of this mashing and squishing might offend your delicate sensibilities, dear readers, but I promise you that the end result immediately cancels out the ick factor. Rice cereal supreme is like banana bread in a bowl, only creamier, and spooned instead of sliced. If this is baby food, then kindly pass me a bib.

Before I hand over the recipe, a word about overripe bananas: It can be difficult to synchronize your cereal (or smoothie or quick bread) consumption with your ripening bananas. The period between the edible mush phase of an overripe banana and the black and genuinely rotten phase is alarmingly short, and since bananas by the bunch tend to freckle and brown at more or less the same pace, it’s all too easy to let a few bananas slip over to the point of no return. The solution is to peel all overripe bananas that do not make it into your blender or oven or cereal bowl, and freeze them in a Ziploc bag. It’s an excellent technique, save for one tiny detail: [Readers with sensitive gag reflexes, I advise you to stop reading right here.] The only thing scarier than an overripe banana is a frozen overripe banana thawing in a bowl on the counter. The first time that Eli saw one, he assumed that it had gone bad (“That banana was not okay. It looked dis-GUS-ting!”), and threw it away. He was horrified (“Ewwww!”) when I told him that a thawing overripe banana is actually supposed to look like a slimy, decomposing alien worm, and that he had been sipping smoothies made from these vile-looking creatures all summer long.

So. Feel free to stash some overripe bananas in your freezer, and to pull one out for this cereal. Just brace yourself, and do your best to wipe the frightful thing from your memory once it’s safely mashed and stirred into the bowl. Your taste buds will surely help you out with that last part.

Rice Cereal Supreme

I use a cereal called Organic Brown Rice Cream by Erewhon. I’ve been told that it’s a little hippy-dippy, but I love it. Feel free to substitute your own favorite brand.

¼ c. rice cereal
1 c. water
A pinch of sea salt
1 overripe banana (or a banana ripe enough to be easily mashed)
2 dashes of cinnamon
1 dash of nutmeg
1 T. ground flaxseed (optional)
5-6 walnuts (which you can toast, if you’d like)

In a microwave-safe cereal bowl, mix together the cereal and the water. Break up any big clumps with a spoon. Add a pinch of sea salt, give it one more stir, and microwave for approximately 2 minutes. While the cereal is cooking, peel the banana, lay it on a small plate, and mash it with a fork until creamy. Sprinkle the cinnamon, nutmeg, and flaxseed (if using) on top of the mashed banana, and mix. When the cereal is ready, scrape the plate of mashed, spiced banana into the bowl, and stir. You can add a splash of milk if you would prefer a slightly wetter cereal. Top with walnuts, and serve.


Blog Aid for Haiti

Hello, and happy Sunday to you.

I wanted to stop in today to tell you about the Blog Aid Cookbook, a project to raise funds for the people of Haiti in the wake of the January 12th earthquake. I mentioned it a couple of days ago in a rather wordy “p.s.,” but a project so inspiring, so inspired deserves a little more airtime. The cookbook is the brainchild of Julie Van Rosendaal, a woman who knows how to make things happen. She started by inviting fellow food bloggers to contribute recipes and photographs. Then, she somehow managed to recruit an editor, an artist, West Canadian Graphics, and Blurb to the cause. Every one of these generous contributors donated their time, talents, and resources so that 100% of proceeds from the book will go directly to Haiti via the Red Cross and Doctors without Borders. One hundred percent.

But wait. It gets better. West Canadian Graphics and Blurb have each pledged to match a percentage of the donations, and the Canadian government will match the total amount that we raise by February 12, 2010! As of today, just three days after the book became available, we have already sold over 1,000 copies. I’m honored to be a part of this project alongside food bloggers whose work I so admire. And, as Eli would say, “honored” is a placeholder for a much, much better word. I hope that you will consider purchasing our book, available in both soft and hardcover, here, where you can also preview several beautiful pages. I’m waiting for my own copy to arrive, and I can’t wait to have it in my hands.

I’ll see you back here, with a recipe, in a few days.



Spot on

Most weeks, selecting a recipe to tell you about here goes something like a game of eeny, meeny, miny, moe.* For every olive oil citrus cake that makes the cut, there’s an equally worthy bean salad on the bench. Alongside every steaming bowl of tomato soup, there’s a wedge of wild mushroom tart that, for no reason in particular, stays under wraps. I wish I could tell you that there’s some kind of art or science behind what gets tossed up here, but the truth is, it’s usually pretty arbitrary. Then, this week, something happened. The stars aligned, and for once a single recipe emerged as the obvious choice for today’s post. The stars to which I refer are none other than the dashing David Lebovitz and the Queen of Cake herself, Maida Heatter. The recipe? Sugar-crusted popovers.

I’ve had Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Desserts at the top of my nightstand pile for a couple of weeks now. It’s a plump little paperback that once belonged to my grandmother. Every night before bed, I balance a pack of colored sticky tabs on my knees, press open the worn pages, and set myself up for the sweetest of dreams. Maida Heatter's Book of Great Desserts first came out in the 1960s, before the memoir-style cookbook (cookbook-style memoir?) was all the rage. Maida pins an anecdote or a memory to a recipe here and there, but for the most part, she lets the recipes stand on their own. I have to say, it’s refreshing. Oh, she’s in there alright, but never so much as to crowd out the dessert she’s describing. Instead of monologuing around her recipes, she speaks through them. She’s direct. She’s precise. She couples exuberance with a strict attention to detail like no one else, smiling up at you from every page, then cracking the whip. If you know what’s good for you, you’ll do exactly as she says.

Unless, of course, you’re David Lebovitz, in which case, if you think you might know better, you’re probably onto something.

On Saturday night, I met up with Maida a few hours ahead of schedule when I clicked over to David’s site to see what he had cooking. He had just posted a Maida Heatter popover recipe that he adapted for the New York Times back in March. Just one night earlier, I had been reading about Maida’s popovers in her own voice, “incredible” popovers that earned her mother the title “Popover Queen.” Suddenly, there they were, all decked out in cinnamon sugar and squatting on David’s cooling rack. With both Maida and David pushing popovers, I was helpless to resist. I took it as a sign. That plans were already underway for a Sunday pot of boozy mulled cider – a decidedly sugar-crusted-popover-friendly beverage, if ever there was one – sealed the deal.

Instead of typing out the popover recipe here, I’m going to send you over to David's site and let him tell you all about it. The bottom line is this: He took Maida’s first-rate popover, and with a coat of melted butter and a bowl of cinnamon sugar, made it even better. David set out to create a popover that would channel the crisp, crackly crust of a just-fried doughnut, and he hit his mark spot on. I like to pull apart the still-warm popovers with my fingers, and revel in the custardy dough that clings to the belly of each bite. They’re popovers in doughnuts’ clothing. It’s nothing short of genius.

Before you go, here’s the recipe for that boozy mulled cider. As I suspected, it cozies up willingly to these popovers, and gives you something to sip while you contemplate swiping a second. Or a third.

*No tigers were harmed in the writing of this post.

Boozy Mulled Cider
Adapted from Gourmet, February 1993

We serve a virgin version of this cider at our Chanukah party every year. Instead of adding the spiced rum to the pot, we set a bottle next to the mugs so that guests can spike their own drinks. I was nervous at first about adding brown sugar to the apple cider, since I find even the unsweetened stuff to be pretty sweet. I need not have feared. The brown sugar adds a maple-y depth to the brew, and against the spices and the rum, any extra sweetness goes down just fine. The original recipe calls for Calvados, which you’re welcome to use in place of the spiced rum.

3 c. unsweetened apple cider
2 T. firmly packed light brown sugar
¼ tsp. allspice
¼ tsp. nutmeg
4 whole cloves
Two 3-inch cinnamon sticks, broken into pieces
½ cup spiced rum or Calvados (optional)

In a saucepan stir together the cider, brown sugar, allspice, nutmeg, cloves, and cinnamon sticks. Cover the pot and simmer gently for 10 minutes. Stir in the spiced rum, if using, and when the mixture is hot, turn off the flame, and discard the cloves and cinnamon.

Yields 3-4 small mugs.

p.s. - This is hardly postscript material, but I can’t sign off without mentioning the Blog Aid Cookbook which, in the one day since its release, has already raised over $20,000 for the people of Haiti. The project was spearheaded by Julie Van Rosendaal of Dinner with Julie, who invited food bloggers to contribute recipes and photographs. Then, so that 100% of the proceeds could go directly to Haiti (via the Red Cross and Doctors without Borders), she rounded up some very generous designers, editors, printers, and publishers willing to donate their time and resources. Yesterday, the book went to print, just three weeks after Julie’s initial query popped up in my inbox. (Yes, she’s basically some kind of magician.) I’ll be back soon to tell you more about it, but in the meantime, please take a peek at our beautiful book, available in both soft and hardcover.